In Tennessee, 53-year-old ballot access laws place significant and unique burdens on independent parties, thus limiting their ability to be recognized on the ballot. As a result, third-party candidates have traditionally listed themselves as “independent” on Tennessee ballots, as ballot access requirements for independent candidates are much more reasonably attainable than for representatives of a political party. However, the 2012 lawsuit Green Party of Tenn. et al. vs. Hargett et al. rattled the restrictive rules, as a federal judge decided that the requirements placed on independent parties were unconstitutional. Ultimately, US District Judge William Haynes Jr. ordered that the Green and Constitution parties be listed on the ballot in 2012 and, through another lawsuit, in 2014.
Activists with the Libertarian Party of Tennessee have launched their own lawsuit in an effort to get the party’s gubernatorial candidate Daniel Lewis listed on the ballot alongside his party identification in the 2014 general election. As it stands, Daniel Lewis is set to be listed on the ballot as an independent. In 2013, Libertarian Party state house candidate Jim Thomasik made history by successfully suing to have himself listed on the ballot by his party identification.
The restrictive ballot access laws set two different qualification standards for major and minor parties. The Republican and Democratic parties can remain as statewide parties, allowing ongoing ballot access without collecting signatures, as long as one candidate receives 5% of the total votes cast for governor over a four year span of time, which has always happened. In order to be considered a statewide party, independent parties, on the other hand, must have attained 5% of the total votes cast for governor in the most recent election, which is not possible during off-year elections in which a party might have attained recognition on a ballot that does not include a governor’s race. Since third parties rarely attain ballot access in the first place, Tennessee’s independent parties have not had an opportunity to develop in a way that would enable them to achieve 5% of votes in gubernatorial races.
Another complication was pointed out by Courthouse News Service, “Tennessee Code Annotated 2-1-104 requires minor parties to obtain the signatures of 2.5 percent of the total number of votes cast for gubernatorial candidates in the most recent election of governor, to be recognized and appear on the ballot.” This means that, before an independent party can even attempt to achieve the 5% benchmark in a gubernatorial race, it must, in the exact same year, orchestrate a nearly-impossible petition drive by acquiring what could be over 40,000 valid signatures of registered voters in a limited amount of time. The Libertarian Party’s recently filed lawsuit, Lewis v. Goins, requests for the court to affirm the previous rulings that found these ballot access restrictions unconstitutional.
A Davidson County voter, Patricia Gilmore, also signed on to the lawsuit and offered a comment on it in a statement released by the party, “In this broken election system that apparently values dollar bills over individuals, people are losing their natural rights to free expression via association. A closed ballot, which fiercely restricts access to only two parties, does not allow voters the ability to freely associate with any party that best represents their interests, as opposed to special interests. Very few voters have the time and ability to research every candidate in every election and are discouraged from voting by the distinct impression that they may only associate with parties Bad and Worse.”
Another voter who signed on to the lawsuit, Bonnie Tyndall of Williamson County, pointed out, “Archival recordings of the Tennessee Legislature debating this issue in 1961 show a legislative intent to force alternative party candidates to run as independents, so that voters would not know that they are associated with a political party or with which party they were associated. The law made it nearly impossible for new political parties to form.”
Some strategists have raised concerns about the precedent that is set when libertarian activists attempt to change state election laws through federal lawsuits. “If the Court were to find in favor of the Libertarian Party of Tennessee, it would be yet another display of judicial tyranny. Libertarians cannot pretend to be defenders of the Constitution and simultaneously spit on it because state law currently prohibits them from being on the ballot. The federal Constitution delegates the Feds no jurisdiction over state wide elections regarding state candidates. Therefore, the Tenth Amendment dictates all such laws are powers of police maintained by the state. In principle, Libertarians cannot claim to be defenders of the Constitution and then subvert it as a means to an end for their own agenda,” said Tennessee Tenth Amendment Center executive director Michael Lotfi.
Given the precedent in recent cases, it is likely that Lewis’ case will prevail, and he will be listed on the ballot by his party identification, giving Tennesseans a Libertarian Party option in the gubernatorial race for the first time in history.