For all the talk of money in politics, there’s still one thing you can’t buy in America — your name on the ballot.
The musician and popular culture icon Kanye West announced on July 4 he would run for president this year, saying President Donald Trump has lost his support. However, West’s White House ambitions are being held by a complicated patchwork of barriers against independent and third-party candidates.
In the United States, you don’t just get on “the ballot” to run for president. There is not just one ballot, but more than 50 ballots, each with different and often exorbitant requirements.
As of this week, more than 1,000 people have filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission to run for president in 2020, but that’s the easy part. Many of them will appear on no ballots at all, and only a few will be on enough ballots to earn the 270 electoral votes necessary to win the election.
West solicited help from political operatives who specialize in ballot access, according to a New York Magazine report this week, with as many as 180 staff and volunteers gathering signatures in Florida and South Carolina.
Despite his wealth and celebrity, West’s last-minute ballot campaign is probably too little, too late. In more than a dozen states, deadlines to secure ballot status for independent or minor party candidates have already passed, including big electoral prizes such as Florida, Illinois and New York.
It would take months of planning and probably millions of dollars for an independent candidate or upstart political party to petition to get on the ballot in enough states to win a presidential election.
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Many states require candidates to submit thousands of voters’ signatures and pay large fees in order to be placed on the ballot. Iowa’s rules are relatively generous, with just 1,500 signatures and an Aug. 14 deadline.
Gathering hundreds of thousands of signatures from people across the country would be especially challenging during an infectious disease pandemic.
This year in Iowa, Libertarian Party members complained that COVID-19 social distancing recommendations — combined with more stringent petitioning requirements imposed by legislative Republicans last year — made it impossible to run a large field of down-ballot candidates.
Ballot access regulations are a way for the major parties to shut down competition. Elite Republicans and Democrats worry that voters, repeatedly presented with disappointing binary choices, will stray to independent or third-party candidates.
The major party presidential nominating processes are contentious and expensive, but winning the Republican or Democratic nomination may still be easier than getting on the ballot as an independent in all 50 states. Trump — who for years openly flirted with the idea of running as a third-party candidate — was wise to instead hijack one of the existing parties, which has built-in ballot privileges.
After Trump’s unlikely election in 2016, many Americans quipped that if he could do it, anyone could. But if Yeezy — a billionaire with nearly universal name recognition in key demographics — can’t even get on ballots, what hope do normal people have?
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