INDIANAPOLIS -- Todd Young’s run for the GOP U.S. Senate seat was called into question earlier this year after a claim he failed to get the required number of voter signatures to appear on the ballot.
The state ruled in Young’s favor, but the debate raised questions about Indiana’s ballot access laws that have yet to be answered.
There are certainly some who think the challenge to Young’s candidacy was nothing more than an insincere political attack, but it’s caused others to wonder whether Indiana’s ballot access laws are too restrictive.
The idea behind the laws is that you can’t just let anyone on the ballot. As Republican Senate President Pro Tem David Long says, it shows a candidate has statewide support. Young will appear on the ballot this year. But before his case was decided, Long told reporters its potential gave him pause.
“I’m not sure it serves its purpose anymore, but we’ll talk about that -- certainly looking at this outcome," Long said. "And its kind of stunning potential makes you wonder if maybe we ought to reconsider how we allow our people to become eligible for the ballot.”
Wide Range of Requirements
When you look at ballot access laws across the country, you see a huge range in how hard it is to get on a ballot. Almost every state does it differently, and the laws change fairly often. Some states require voter signatures, some charge a filing fee, and a few require both. Indiana only requires signatures, but it definitely lies on the more restrictive side of that spectrum.
For a Republican like Young, running for U.S. Senate in the primary election, he needs 4,500 signatures across nine districts.
The worry with ballot access laws is that it might keep smaller parties from gaining popularity over time. Republicans, Democrats and Libertarians in Indiana have what’s called "automatic ballot access," which means the hurdle minor parties have to jump is even higher.
Julia Vaughn from the lobbying group Common Cause says the safeguard comes at a high price.
“You know, it’s good to have rules. But are the rules benefiting Indiana voters? Because we think more choice is better than few choices when it comes to voters," Vaughn said. "And so the end result of this is that we have fewer political parties to vote for, and many times fewer candidates.”
And there’s another phenomenon to factor in when talking about diversity on the ballot. IPFW political scientist Andy Downs says voters tend to be idealistic leading up to an election, but that when they finally vote they strongly consider how likely a candidate is to win.
“That then feeds into this idea that only the two major political parties win races," Downs said. "The reality is we need more competitive elections, whether that’s between two parties, three, four, five parties. We need more competitive elections to make people want to come out and vote. That’s the number one key to getting better turnout in our races.”
Change on the Horizon?
Ballot access laws have been around for decades, and it’s easy to see their effect. For three presidential races in a row – in 2000, 2004 and 2008 – Ralph Nader could not get on the Indiana ballot.
Of course, some would argue that if Nader couldn’t get the required support in Indiana, he shouldn’t be on the ballot. But for each of those elections, Nader came in third place nationally.
“And when the person who comes in third three times in a row can’t get on a state’s ballot, that’s an obvious sign that there’s something wrong with that state’s law,” said Richard Winger, who runs the national blog Ballot Access News.
He says while national trends over the last few decades have tilted in favor of more accessible ballot laws, Indiana has gone in the other direction.
But the thing that surprises Winger most, he says, has been the lack of any significant response.
“In North Carolina we constantly have bills in the legislature, but they never pass. But Indiana, there’s something wrong with Indiana," Winger said. "We can’t get any legislator to even introduce a bill, to ease these problems. And we can’t get the Indiana press to talk about it. In those other states, the newspapers are constantly editorializing about it.”
The Young story might change that – Republican Rep. Jeff Ellington says he plans to introduce a ballot access reform bill next session. Some, like the Libertarian Party of Indiana’s Frank Rossa, remain cautiously optimistic.
“That’s gonna require the Hoosiers to get out there and pressure their legislators to actually change this process,” Rossa said.
Because, Rossa says, the people in power have an incentive to keep the system the way it is.