ABC News Corona Virus Political Impact

Coronavirus adds to ballot access hurdles for third party candidates

A congressman and former governor recently decided against third-party bids.

When Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, a former Republican who left the party in July to become an independent, announced last weekend that he would not pursue the Libertarian Party's presidential nomination, the move removed a higher profile name from the top of its ticket.

The Libertarians are set to nominate their party's candidates for president and vice president on Saturday, and the Green Party is poised to follow suit in July, but neither party is likely to nominate candidates with any significant national name recognition.

The candidate with the best name indentification for the Libertarians is likely Vermin Supreme, a joke candidate who's made a name for himself among politicos as a serial campaigner for offices local, statewide and national. Contrast that with both 2012 and 2016 when former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson was at the top of the Libertarian ticket, two cycles in a row.

But even beyond the lack of candidate name recognition, the coronavirus pandemic has presented the parties with an even bigger problem: with traditional campaigning completely upended, minor parties now face an even greater burden of actually getting their candidates' names on every states' ballot for the Nov. 3 election.

"With this situation being what it is with the COVID-19 has made everything a lot more difficult, because the routes we would normally take in order to get our candidates on the ballot are closed to us because we can't petition," Green Party national co-chair Anita Rios told ABC News Thursday.

"We were certainly on path to have 50 state ballot access. We had 35 states coming in at the beginning of the year. We were out petitioning. We were going to make all 50 states, for sure," said Dan Fishman, executive director of the Libertarian National Committee. "And then, you know, COVID hits, and it's almost impossible to gather signatures."

While Fishman was still confident the party would gain ballot access in every state, third-party presidential nominees are up against cumbersome laws that vary state-by-state, and don't present the same hurdles for Democratic and Republican nominees, who typically enjoy more resources and money from national and state parties.

"There are 50 different sets of laws," Rios said. "And some of those laws are impossibly hard, and they serve no purpose."

For example, in some states, a party's candidate securing a certain percentage of the vote statewide in the most recent presidential, or gubernatorial, election is enough to guarantee ballot access for its candidates at all levels of government for the next four years. In other states, though, candidates can get on the ballot by collecting a specified number of signatures, but this can be even more difficult for third-party candidates to achieve in states that have an additional requirement that signatories must be either registered independents or registered members of the political party they're supporting by signing the petition.

Kristin Combs, another national co-chair of the Green Party, told ABC News that due to coronavirus, the party needs special "relief" from these laws.

"We are asking for one of three solutions from states -- either that they lower the signature requirements dramatically and allow for electronic filings of signatures, that they grant automatic ballot access or that they replace petition filing with a reasonable filing fee," Combs said.

The Green and Libertarian Parties teamed up to take on ballot access laws in the courts, winning a lawsuit in Illinois where a federal judge ended up significantly loosening the signature requirement for this cycle, and also ruling that so long as the parties' candidates qualified for the ballot in 2018 or 2016, they would be automatically qualified for the ballot in November 2020, too.

While the Libertarian Party, which stopped collecting signatures on March 7 because of coronavirus safety concerns, plans to use this ruling to challenge ballot access laws in other states, it's only a single-cycle solution for a problem that exists even without a pandemic.

"Fundamentally, ballot access is a tool that's used to really keep people form having too many choices. The old parties -- they don't want you to have a lot of choices because they want you to pick their candidate," Fishman said. "It's something we've struggled against for a long time so hopefully -- hopefully -- this crisis gives us an opportunity to say, 'Look, nothing is threatened by having easier ballot access requirements.'"

Rios said that these laws' only purpose "is to exclude people from the ballot."

"I think that trickles down to how ordinary people feel about their own personal involvement with politics... it's just a terrible message," she said. "I have encountered so many people who simply have told me flat out as I'm petitioning to try to get on the ballot for this or that, who say, 'I have no faith in the political process, no, I won't sign your petition because I don't see that as having any value.'"

While Rios said hearing that breaks her heart, at the core of that sentiment is the question political pundits often raise about third party candidates, especially those running in a presidential election: What's the point if they don't stand a chance of winning in America's two-party, electoral college system?

Perhaps the most memorable third party presidential candidates in recent history have been pegged "spoilers" -- candidates who took enough votes away from one of the major party candidates that if the third party candidate had not also been on the ballot, the outcome of the election may have been different.

In 2016, Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, and Dr. Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, had enough of the share of the vote in key swing states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida, that had they not been on the ballot, the votes they got could have potentially made up the deficit then-Democratic nominee and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had against then-Republican nominee Donald Trump in those states, and Clinton could have potentially become president instead of Trump. After the 2000 election, many called Ralph Nader, the most high profile candidate the Green Party has ever ran, a "spoiler" for then-Democratic nominee and Vice President Al Gore.

"Yes, it's generally true that third parties can spoil an election. It's maybe a little more difficult to measure than some people might think," said Matthew Hindman, an associate professor of political science at the University of Tulsa.

"But generally speaking.... people vote for the two major parties, largely because voters don't want to spoil the election. We're often voting as much against candidates as we are for them," Hindman added. "That's never been more true than it is today."

Hindman said that Americans are "afraid of enabling the 'wrong' candidate to get elected," which has made for a stable two-party system where most voters cast ballots for Democrats or Republicans, and the number of "true independents" in this country has been declining over the last one to two generations.

"We have near an all time high in the number of people recording to be politically independent. But if you really zero in on those voters who claim to be independent, the vast majority of them, lean towards the Democrats or towards the Republicans," he said. "Historically, third parties have an opportunity to capitalize on a large number of independent voters. But when very few of them are truly independent, the conditions just aren't right for flourishing third party politics."

For the Green and Libertarian Parties, though, it's not so much about actually winning the highest office as it is about winning enough of the vote to secure future ballot access for their candidates at all levels of government. And they certainly don't see their candidates as spoilers as much as they see the country's political structure as spoiled.

"I really do believe that people have the right to vote their conscience, and I understand that for some people that for them feels like they're stuck between two options, and I think for me, it really comes down to educating people that they don't have to be stuck with two options, that there's another voting system that could be easily implemented so that they don't have to be put in a position where they're stuck with the lesser of two evils," Combs said, advocating for a rank-choice voting system instead.

Fishman told ABC News he himself was called a spoiler when he ran to represent Massachusetts's 6th Congressional District in Congress in 2012.

"What I've always said to that is the only spoiled vote is one that you cast for a candidate you don't like," he said. "Saying that we're spoilers? I really reject that idea because people need to have representatives that they can vote for that look like them. If not, then the election is really spoiled. When you're out voting for a candidate that you don't like, that's a spoiled election."

"I think that is a profoundly undemocratic way of even looking at a campaign," Rios added.

She told ABC News that she feels like she comes "from the American third world." A Latina growing up in the Rust Belt of America, she shared that her father was illiterate, and she didn't graduate high school -- didn't even get beyond ninth grade -- and half of her six siblings didn't get a diplomas either. But even against those odds, she and those siblings later went on to earn bachelor's degrees.

"The way that has informed by notion of politics is that we are disenfranchised, and a significant portion of the American people are continually disenfranchised," she said. "When somebody says the word spoiler, I just think, 'Are we really talking about democracy? Are you really telling me that I should not vote for a candidate based on their alignment with my values?'"

"I think that that is just a really, really sad way of looking at politics, and I won't do it," Rios said. "I feel like I have struggled very hard... to have a voice in democracy, and I'm not going to give that away, and I'm not going to cheapen it by voting for people that I don't have any confidence in."