Third Parties Ramp Up Fight Against Tenn. Ballot Access Barriers Ruled Unconstitutional

Third parties had their best showing in nearly two decades last November, but they still face major ballot access hurdles in future state elections across the country. Tennessee is a prime example.

Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson ran as the Libertarian Party’s candidate for president and drew over 70,000 votes in the state which, theoretically, would give his party recognized status in the state. But Tre Hargett, the Tennessee secretary of state, has yet to provide clarity on the issue and the barriers to ballot access remain high despite numerous successful legal challenges.

The reason why recognized party status is so critical for third parties is it significantly reduces the amount of time and resources needed to get on the ballot. Presently, the Volunteer State recognizes political parties under two separate designations: either “statewide” or “minor.”

Tennessee's ballot-retention statute clearly imposes a heavier burden on minor parties than major parties...
Chief Judge R. Guy Cole

According to Ballotpedia, the Republican and Democratic Parties are the only recognized parties in the state. As such, they enjoy a much lower barrier to entry to the ballot with respect to signatures and filing deadlines. This leaves third parties like the Libertarians and Greens in a never-ending cycle of gathering signatures.

So where will they go from here?

Jim Tomasik, chair of the Libertarian Party of Tennessee, says the party is taking multiple approaches to secure recognized status, one of which involves the state legislature. “We simultaneously have a bill going through the state legislature that wishes to reduce the number of required signatures to 5,000 to get on as a minor party.”

HB 662, cross filed as SB 770 in the Senate, would dramatically reduce the signature requirement for “minor party status” from tens of thousands to 5,000.

But naysayers in the legislature are suggesting it would be too costly to allow non-major parties on the ballot. A fiscal note related to the legislation contemplated additional election costs around $2,500 per county to include any additional party candidates on the ballot. Tomasik says the estimation is unfounded:

“When we found out about the fiscal note, we called several counties and all the county election officials, no matter who they called, said ‘it wouldn’t cost anything to add somebody else.'”

The legislation follows a series of court cases brought by minor parties in the state. In multiple lawsuits, Tennessee’s third parties argued successfully that the state maintained unconstitutional barriers to ballot access primarily through the use of excessive signature requirements and unreasonable filing deadlines.

In 2015, Chief Judge R. Guy Cole ruled in favor of the Green and Constitution parties, finding:

“Tennessee’s ballot-retention statute clearly imposes a heavier burden on minor parties than major parties by giving minor parties less time to obtain the same level of electoral success as established parties.” He added, “Because this statute imposes a greater burden on minor parties without a sufficient rationale put forth by the state, it violates the Equal Protection Clause. It impermissibly ‘freezes the status quo’ and does not allow ‘a real and essentially equal opportunity for ballot qualification.'”

Tennessee Delegate to the Green National Committee, Howard Switzer, believes moving the signature requirement to 5,000 signatures is a “huge improvement.” But he says the state should adhere to its own constitution, which prohibits restricting access to the ballot based on a religious or political test.

In an interview for IVN, Switzer said, “We would like to see all religious and political roadblocks to minor political parties’ access to the ballot eliminated.”

HB 662 is now before the State and Local Government Committee with action deferred until March 28.