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Third-Party Candidates Face ‘Extraordinarily Difficult’ Task to Attract Voters, Secure Ballot Access

Credits: CBS News

After casting his vote for Donald Trump for president in 2016 in what he thought was a “fail-safe” decision, Romeo Keyes became so angry with his choice that he didn’t even bother voting during the highly contested presidential race in 2020.

“I picked the less of two evils back then, and I just didn’t want to do it again,” Keyes, 26, said. A writer and native of South Central Los Angeles, Keyes said he’s planning to vote this time for Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the environmental lawyer who became an Independent candidate in October.

Either a Republican or a Democrat has claimed the White House since Zachary Taylor won as a Whig in 1848. But this year, perhaps more than in recent election years, some Americans are fed up with both major parties and are looking elsewhere.

Americans Voting (Credits: National Geographic Society)

Though not polling high enough to topple the two leading parties, independent candidates have earned sufficient votes to swing presidential elections. Businessman Ross Perot, for example, claimed 19% of the national vote in 1992, likely helping Democrat Bill Clinton win the presidency.

It’s tough to challenge America’s entrenched two-party system.

Getting on 50 different state ballots ‒ each with its own rules and regulations ‒ is complicated, time-consuming and expensive. Kennedy’s campaign estimates it will cost them $30 million.

In California, for example, an independent candidate must collect about 219,000 signatures over 105 days, starting in April, according to Ballot Access News.

By contrast, in Maine, with a population of just 1.4 million compared to California’s 39 million, an independent candidate needs to get only between 4,000 and 5,000 voter signatures to get on the ballot. And in Florida, independent candidates need 145,040 signatures to get on that state’s presidential ballot.

“It’s quite a logistical nightmare for any third-party or independent candidate,” said Theresa Amato, a lawyer, author and former national campaign manager for consumer advocate Ralph Nader’s 2000 and 2004 presidential runs.

(Nader earned 2.7% of the national vote in 2000, contributing to Republican George H. W. Bush’s win over Democrat Al Gore. He won less than 1% of the national vote in 2004 and 2008.)

“If you’re not on the ballot, you’re nowhere,” Amato said. Third-party candidates are also typically left out of the primary process. In Pennsylvania, for instance, people registered as independents can’t vote in primaries.

“So who is voting? It’s the extremes. It’s the voices on the far left and the far right mostly,” said former Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar. “That just reinforces the same and the same and the same.’’

Election process rules could be improved to allow more third parties to form and get on ballots and independents could be allowed to vote in primaries, she said, though she doesn’t expect changes this year. It’s precisely the people who have succeeded in the current system who would have to make the changes.

“Incumbency is so powerful,’’ Boockvar said. “And if all they care about is their interest, then they’re not going to vote for something that puts them more at risk and that’s 100% what it’s about.”

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