One Route To Getting On The Ballot As A Third-Party Candidate: File A Lawsuit

The Libertarian Party's lawyer, Jim Linger, says minor parties have filed six federal lawsuits in the past six years. Credit: Vox Efx via Flickr

The Libertarian Party’s lawyer, Jim Linger, says minor parties have filed six federal lawsuits in the past six years. Credit: Vox Efx via Flickr

The Libertarian Party has sued state election officials in hopes of getting its candidate for governor listed as a Libertarian on November’s ballot. It’s one of several lawsuits that third parties have filed in recent years against Tennessee’s ballot access laws.

To get on the ballot as an independent, candidates only need 25 voters to sign a petition. But if they want a political party next to their name — other than Republican or Democrat — they need about 40,000 signatures. The two major parties receive so many of the votes cast each year that they get to bypass that requirement.

“The history of Tennessee, in the last 40 to 50 years, has been one that has basically, unless you can win a lawsuit, you’re not going to have minor parties on the ballot,” says Jim Linger, a lawyer from Oklahoma who is representing the Libertarian Party in its new lawsuit.

The Green Party and Constitution Party also filed lawsuits to get their candidates on the ballot earlier this year. The district court sided with them, and an appeals court heard the case last week.

But Bruce Oppenheimer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt, says he’s researched states where it’s easier to get listed as a third-party candidate — and having a party label doesn’t seem to help.

“Those party candidates don’t do any better than people running as independents,” he says.

In general, he says, minor candidates would have a better shot at getting elected if they tried to run within the Democratic or Republican parties.

Still, the courts have tended to side with third parties in Tennessee. That has forced the state legislature to make the laws less restrictive: For instance, state law no longer requires primaries for minor parties, and it pushed back the deadline for gathering signatures by 30 days.

Linger, the Libertarian Party lawyer, says they might just keep suing until they agree with what’s on the books.

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