A Modest Proposal for Ballot-Access Reform

The failure of most of the nationally-profiled Republican presidential candidates to qualify for Virginia’s March 6 primary ballot has set off a kerfuffle of conversation about the state’s ballot-access requirements.

Some say that the 10,000 signature (plus 400 from each of 11 congressional districts) threshold is appropriate and offers a sturdy test of the candidate’s capability to put together an effective campaign organization, with an emphasis on mobilizing grassroots volunteers.

They point out that the requirements are the same ones that must be met by all candidates for statewide office – including U.S. Senate candidates and candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general. (I would point out, however, that the time periods allowed to collect the same number of signatures differ. Candidates for the U.S. Senate who want to be on the Republican primary ballot, for instance, must collect all their signatures by March 12; independent candidates for the same office have until June 12 to collect the same number; both have the same starting date of January 1.)

Others say that the requirements are too stiff and serve as a deterrent to candidates who may be able to compete nationally and, indeed, are focusing their energies on early primary and caucus states that could propel them to the level of support they would need to succeed in Virginia and other later-primary states (were Virginia’s filing deadline not so early).

For instance, prominent election-law attorney Christopher Ashby noted on his blog:

Want a sense of how next-to-impossible this is? I know top-flight Virginia political consultants who turned down lucrative petition project contracts from presidential campaigns because they did not think it could be done.

Speaking as someone who has collected literally thousands of petition signatures since my first political campaign in 1991 (and as recently as this year), I can attest to the limited value that petitions have as a ballot-access qualification – if not in all cases, then certainly for presidential campaigns.

The truth is, people don’t sign candidate petitions (distinguished from issue petitions for initiatives in those states that have voter-initiated ballot measures) because they support the candidates. In my experience, most people sign petitions for the same reason they give a quarter to a panhandler: out of a mixture of pity and a sense of “if I do this, he’ll go away.” Genuine interest in the candidate or the process is appreciated but vanishingly rare.

This does not apply so much in truly local elections – city council, House of Delegates – because the candidate is more likely to be known to potential voters and, because of that familiarity, a signature signifies more.

For presidential candidates, however, because of the nature of the nominating process, the emphasis on Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina means that the candidates and their organizations are not able to focus their efforts or energies on later primary states like Virginia. Their best volunteers are deployed to those early states, where their skills and dedication are more necessary and better utilized. Virginia and other states become afterthoughts, where focus can be applied only after doing well in Iowa or New Hampshire.

With all this in mind, I make this proposal to start a conversation about how to reform Virginia’s ballot-access rules for major-party presidential primary candidates. If it also starts a conversation about the larger issue of Virginia’s ballot-access requirements for other candidates (including third-party and independent presidential candidates), I welcome that as well.

The most obvious reform would be to reduce the signature requirement. One possibility is to change the statewide threshold to 5,000 signatures, with 200 signatures from each of 6 of the 11 congressional districts.

Absent that basic reform, I recommend that Virginia offer these as alternative methods of entry to the primary election ballot:

(1) Candidates may choose to meet the current requirements of 10,000 signatures statewide plus 400 in each of the eleven congressional districts.
(2) Candidates may choose to present 5,000/200 signatures, plus a filing fee of $5,000.
(3) Candidates may forego the signature requirement entirely and instead pay a filing fee of $10,000.
(4) Candidates may forego the signature requirement entirely and instead present an affidavit showing that, according to the Federal Election Commission, they have received a minimum of $100,000 in contributions from Virginia residents.

These suggestions are not exhaustive. Other permutations might be possible.

Let the conversation begin so that we can produce substantive reform to the process well before the beginning of the 2016 presidential campaign cycle (that is, by Wednesday, November 7, 2012).