Ralph Nader Faces Uphill Battle Before His Uphill Battle

Long-shot presidential bid hampered by ballot laws.

With all the attention being paid to the candidacy of Ralph Nader, you might think voters in every state will be seeing his name in the voting booth this November, but Nader has yet to qualify for the ballot in a single state.

You can blame that on the crazy quilt of state ballot-access laws, which Nader has said are so difficult to comply with it's like "climbing a cliff with a slippery rope." Each state writes its own rules for who is allowed on its ballot, and in many the requirements for independent and third-party candidates are tough to fulfill.

In Texas an independent candidate is required to collect 64,000 signatures (1 percent of the ballots cast there in the last presidential election) within 60 days, with a deadline of May 10. Nader came about 14,000 signatures short and filed a lawsuit alleging that Texas' ballot-access rules unconstitutionally discriminate against him and other independent candidates. "Democracy is under assault," declared Nader, who also claims his signature gatherers were wrongly blocked from collecting signatures in public places.

While he awaits the outcome of that case, Nader is struggling with requirements in other states, many of which have deadlines later this summer. In Oregon, Nader failed to get 1,000 supporters to come to the state's one-day convention for independents (which would have qualified him for the ballot), so he now needs to collect 15,306 signatures by July 2. In Georgia he needs 38,567 signatures in the next two months; in Illinois 25,000; and in California 150,805. Tough sledding, but he's done this before. Four years ago Nader made the ballot in 43 states (after filing eight lawsuits), and his campaign has pledged to top that this year.

The difficulty of doing what is necessary to get on the ballot in each and every state explains why the Reform Party's endorsement of Nader for president last week could prove so important. The Reform Party, founded by Ross Perot, has already qualified for a spot on the ballot in seven states (including hotly contested Florida and Michigan). Although Nader has yet to decide whether to run in those states as the party's nominee, the endorsement gives him that option.

Should it be this hard for Nader? Stringent ballot access rules are often defended with the claim that they prevent frivolous candidates from overcrowding the ballot and confusing voters. Others cite the benefits of the two-party system and point to the 2000 election as proof of what can happen when more than two candidates compete for votes. In that case, although the more liberal candidates (Gore and Nader) won nearly 100,000 more votes than Bush in Florida, Bush won the state.

A few states, conversely, set minimal levels for inclusion. Tennessee requires just 275 signatures, and New Jersey a mere 800. Want to run for president in Colorado? All you need is $500 and a few friends who will promise to serve as presidential electors should you win. These states may feel that giving voters more candidates to choose from gives them a greater voice and the ability to send a message to the two major parties.

This has proved important in the past, as independent and third-party candidates have often raised issues that major parties were afraid or unwilling to touch at the time, including the right of women to vote (Prohibition Party, late 1800s), child labor laws (Socialist Party, 1904) and reducing the federal budget deficit and enacting campaign-finance reform (Ross Perot, 1992). The major parties took note of these issues and began to address them only after seeing the number of voters who cared. Nader argues that his signature issues in 2004 — universal heath care, fair trade and a military withdrawal from Iraq — are just as important.

Of course, even if Nader makes it onto the ballot in Texas and every other state, a variety of other hurdles, such as the federal campaign-finance laws, exclusion from the presidential debates, and the Electoral College, will make it almost impossible for him, or any other outsider candidate, to win many votes. For now, however, Nader just wants a ticket to the show.