Will RFK Jr. and third-party contenders even make the ballot in November?

A variety of state-by-state rules stand in their way.

March 21, 2024, 5:43 PM

Many Americans haven't come to terms with the reality that President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump have clinched their party's nominations for the general election this November. And polls have shown that many voters are anything but happy at the prospect of a 2020 rematch.

This disenchantment could open the door for third-party and independent presidential candidates to win more votes this year than they usually do. Outside campaigns by independent Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the bipartisan group No Labels and progressive contender Cornel West — along with long-tenured third parties like the Libertarians and Greens — stand ready to attract voters unhappy with the two major parties' presumptive nominees. And while none of these alternative candidates has much chance of winning, their campaigns could help influence — or, as their critics might say, "spoil" — the outcome of the 2024 contest.

Yet to have a chance at winning votes, these candidates first need to qualify for the ballot in each of the 50 states and Washington, D.C. — a task that is often easier said than done. Across the country, candidates and their allies are spending substantial resources — mounting signature drives, forming new parties or facing litigation — to meet qualification requirements that sometimes differ significantly from state to state. Overall, the success rate for each minor candidate could vary considerably, but past elections suggest that the highest-profile contenders or third parties will make the ballot in most states.

Who's made the ballot so far in the 2024 race?

Broadly speaking, candidates can qualify for the ballot in two ways: as an independent candidate, or as the nominee of a qualifying party organization. States vary in terms of which course is more arduous. When it comes to qualifying as a party organization, a third-party campaign generally needs to meet certain thresholds, such as garnering enough petition signatures or convincing enough voters to register under the party label. (Minor parties that already have ballot status may also need to meet minimum support thresholds in voter registration or in the most recent election to maintain it.) Meanwhile, independent candidates generally need to gather signatures to qualify, though such a campaign can also give itself a party label in many states. In the face of differing state-to-state regulations, making the ballot in each state is an expensive and sometimes litigious process.

At this still-early juncture, just one minor candidate or party has qualified in enough states to theoretically win the presidency with 270 of the Electoral College's 538 electoral votes (note our publication's name). So far, the Libertarian Party looks likely to appear on at least 37 state ballots worth 381 electoral votes, having made the ballot in 36 states, according to Ballot Access News, and submitted petition signatures in Ohio. (Because many states won't confirm qualification until later this year, we're including cases in which a party or candidate has submitted qualification signatures or claims to have enough backing to qualify, as long as such claims can't be contradicted by available data. In a few cases, qualification might not actually happen.)

The Libertarians are in this position because they're arguably the most well-supported minor party nationally, with about three times as many registered voters as the next-closest third party, the Green Party. For their part, the Greens look to have access in about 21 states, having recently submitted signatures in South Dakota. No Labels, the bipartisan group behind this cycle's most-ballyhooed third-party bid, seems on course to overtake the Greens: Overall, the organization claims to have qualified in 18 states, while Ballot Access News noted that the group had completed its registration or signature drives to qualify as a party in at least four other states — this despite No Labels's insistence that it's not a party. Meanwhile, the conservative Constitution Party has also made 12 state ballots and looks to have met the signature requirement for a 13th in North Carolina.

Beyond these party or quasi-party organizations, Kennedy's campaign has officially made the ballot in one state — Utah — and claims to have qualified in three others, while an allied super PAC claims to have sufficient signatures for Kennedy to make the ballot in four more. For his part, West claims to have made the ballot in four states so far.

These candidates and parties still have time though: Many states' deadlines for submitting petition signatures or registering voters to qualify aren't until this summer. In fact, the median date to qualify for ballot access as a candidate is in early August, while the median deadline for qualification as a party is in late June.

As the table above shows, it's also important to note which states each of these campaigns qualify for — seven key swing states were decided by less than 3 percentage points in 2020, so small shifts in voter preferences there could especially matter to the Electoral College result.

The longer-established Libertarian and Green parties certainly have more experience overcoming the various obstacles to ballot qualification across different states. The Libertarians believe their ticket will qualify in most states, and they've already made the ballot in six of the seven most pivotal swing states so far. Meanwhile, the Greens are hoping to beat the 30 state ballots they made in 2020 and have made four key swing state ballots. The Libertarians will nominate their presidential ticket in late May and the Greens will pick their candidates in mid-July.

However, some states could prove especially difficult to qualify in, whether they're competitive or not. Perhaps the hardest could be New York, which has increased the electoral support threshold for parties to maintain ballot access from 50,000 votes to 130,000 votes in the last gubernatorial election. Last fall, the Supreme Court refused to hear a legal challenge to the 2020 state law that raised the threshold. As a result, unrecognized parties in New York — like the Libertarians and Greens — will need to meet the same requirements as independent candidates: collect at least 45,000 valid signatures by May 28, with at least 500 from each of half of the state's congressional districts.

Some campaigns may need to adopt a hybrid approach based on this patchwork of ballot access requirements. No Labels wants to make 32 state ballots as an organization — and they've made it onto three key swing state ballots at this point — then have their preferred presidential ticket work to qualify in the remaining states, particularly those where it's easier for independent candidates to qualify than parties. In some cases, this is also because specific candidates must be named on petition signature documents in order for them to count. No Labels hasn't decided on its candidates yet, and many states do not allow parties or tickets to substitute presidential or vice presidential candidates later on.

Kennedy faces similar challenges, which helps explain why he intends to announce his vice presidential choice on March 26. In most states, Kennedy will pursue qualification as an independent candidate, and in about half of all states he will need to name his running mate on his nomination papers, according to NBC News. But because it is easier to qualify for the ballot under a party banner in some states, Kennedy backers have formed political parties in six states: California, Delaware, Hawaii, Mississippi, North Carolina and Texas. California exemplifies why the party route was preferable in these states: A third party there needs around 74,000 voters to register with the party by July 5 to qualify, which is about one-third the number of petition signatures an independent candidate needs to get from registered voters by Aug. 9 (219,403).

And as is often the case for third parties and candidates, Kennedy and his allies have been involved in litigation over ballot access. For instance, Kennedy has sued Utah and Idaho to delay very early filing deadlines for independent candidates, winning in Utah and pushing Idaho to change its state law to push the deadline back to August. Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission accusing American Values 2024, a pro-Kennedy super PAC, of violating campaign finance laws by coordinating with the Kennedy campaign to help the candidate qualify in some states. The super PAC has attacked this complaint as purely political, but it announced earlier this month that it would stop gathering signatures on Kennedy's behalf in states beyond Arizona, Georgia, Michigan and South Carolina, short of the 10 states the group announced late last year.

Lastly, West's campaign hasn't officially qualified anywhere yet but says it has made the ballot in Alaska, Oregon, South Carolina and Utah — none of which will be pivotal to the election outcome. Little-known parties appear to have eased West's path in three of these states. The Aurora Party looks set to provide him with a ballot line in Alaska, while the Oregon Progressive Party has done the same in Oregon. Most recently, West said in late February that the United Citizens Party would give him a ballot line in South Carolina as well. Per ABC News's reporting, West has met the signature requirement in Utah, but has not yet officially filed there.

Making almost every ballot is challenging but possible

Although securing ballot access is certainly challenging for minor parties and candidates — and ballot qualification rules have shifted over time — the most prominent third-party presidential campaigns over the last four decades have tended to make the ballot in most states. In part, this is because state laws and court rulings have actually made qualification somewhat easier for presidential contenders running outside the two-party system than for similar candidates who want to seek offices such as the U.S. House of Representatives.

For instance, the Libertarian nominee made all 51 possible ballots across every state and the District of Columbia in both 2016 and 2020. The three highest-profile third-party campaigns since 1980 each made every ballot, too: John Anderson in 1980, Ross Perot in 1992 and Perot's second campaign under the new Reform Party banner in 1996.

Looking at the 23 third-party or independent candidates who won at least 0.25 percent of the national popular vote in presidential elections since 1980, the median candidate made 49 of 51 possible ballots.

Considering this data and where things stand for 2024, it would come as little surprise if the eventual Libertarian nominee and Kennedy each make the ballot in nearly every state. After all, the chair of the Libertarian Party recently told the libertarian publication Reason that making less than 48 state ballots "would be a failure" for the party. For his part, Kennedy had raised about $28 million as of the end of February, which far exceeds what most minor campaigns bring in — for instance, Gary Johnson raised $12.2 million in the entire 2016 cycle as the Libertarian nominee. This should give Kennedy the means to navigate varying state regulations, pay for signature gathering operations and take states to court to contest their rules, as his campaign already has.

Outside of those two campaigns, the going will admittedly get tougher. No Labels's decision to focus its resources to gain ballot access in only 32 states will leave a fair bit of legwork for its candidates — should they ever name them. Still, the group does have ample resources, which has helped it reach its current position and could aid its ticket down the line.

For the two most notable third-party efforts on the left, the number of ballots is harder to know. The Greens have never qualified for more than 45 ballots — Jill Stein in 2016 — and Howie Hawkins only made 30 in 2020, the party's lowest mark in the past four elections. Stein, who seems likely to once again become her party's nominee, has raised $498,000 this cycle while the national Green Party has raised $645,000 since the start of 2021. As for West, his early ballot lines have mostly come via already-established parties, but it remains to be seen if his campaign can mount the sizable signature gathering efforts necessary to qualify in other states. As of the end of February, his campaign had raised $933,000 this cycle. Yet that figure already puts him well ahead of fundraising by recent candidates of the Green Party, whose nomination West originally planned to seek before shifting his plans. He's outdone Stein so far this cycle, is well ahead of what Hawkins raised in 2020 ($499,000) and isn't far off from the $1.1 million the national Green Party raised from 2017 to 2020.


It's difficult to say yet just how these candidates and parties could influence the outcome of the 2024 election. Early polling has shown Biden suffering somewhat more than Trump in ballot tests that include candidates such as Kennedy and West. However, third-party contenders have often been overrated at this early point in the election cycle, polling well above where they end up in November. Nonetheless, the share of voters who end up voting for these alternative choices could affect the margins in closely divided swing states. That means we'll continue to keep a close eye on just where these outsider campaigns qualify for the ballot — and where they come up short.

Oren Oppenheim, Kelsey Walsh, Gabriella Abdul-Hakim, Will McDuffie and Nicholas Kerr contributed research.