Georgia’s Harsh Ballot Access Laws Challenged in U.S. Supreme Court by Independent Candidates.


ATLANTA – Georgia has not seen a single independent candidate able to get on the ballot for U.S. House using the 5% of registered voters signature requirement since 1964. In 2008, Faye Coffield aimed to change that record by running for U.S. House in Georgia’s 4th District, but was kept off the ballot. Coffield faced a signature requirement of more than 15,000 valid signatures to get on the ballot – a feat which no independent candidate for U.S. House, anywhere in the United States, has ever achieved.

Seeking to overturn Georgia’s ballot-access laws, Coffield and other plaintiffs filed a lawsuit, Coffield v Handel, 09-13277, that is being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. An en banc hearing by all the circuit judges has been requested after the three judge panel ruled against Coffield, March 22, 2010.

In the appeal, Coffield requests the court to consider the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Storer v. Brown, 1974, which suggests that if candidates only rarely are able to overcome steep signature requirements, then that should be used as a guide to determine whether those requirements should be set aside as too harsh.

The 11th Circuit panel noted in the Coffield v Handel ruling, that Coffield did not provide information on how many independent candidates had attempted to get on the ballot in Georgia, despite the fact that Coffield would have no way of knowing that information because Georgia does not keep such records and independent candidates are not required to give notice that they are petitioning. The panel also did not recognize Storer v. Brown, which calls for consideration of the number of candidates who have succeeded in overcoming the requirement. The panel instead asked how many candidates had failed at overcoming the requirement.

“Federal courts should be looking at how many candidates have been able to meet harsh requirements before they look at how many have failed,” said Christina Tobin, CEO and founder of Free and Equal Elections Foundation. “If they insist on wanting examples of failed candidates there is plenty of evidence from Georgia this year showing independent and alternative party candidates have real problems meeting some of the worst requirements in the US.”

At the statewide level, Brad Bryant, independent candidate for State Schools Superintendent, and Raymond Boyd, independent candidate for Governor of Georgia, failed to collect the legal minimum number of petition signatures, 44,089, and therefore decided against filing any petitions for candidacy.

Mary Norwood, independent candidate for Fulton County Commission Chair, has been denied a spot on the ballot despite her submission of roughly 33,000 signatures to meet the legal requirement of 22,598. Election officials never finished checking Norwood’s petition and denied her spot because she was four hours late to pay the filing fee, despite the petition deadline two weeks later. The deadline for the filing fee was at noon, instead of 5pm when offices close.

Despite precedents that have been set with party-affiliated candidates submitting late notice of candidacy, Norwood was denied ballot access. “We pursued ballot access, because in our view, we had ‘substantial compliance with the law,’ and we had accomplished the impossible – gathering over 33,000 signatures in less than 90 days. Had I not raised $2 million in the preceding year running for Mayor of Atlanta, I don’t believe we could have gathered the requisite number of petitioners,” Norwood said. “Georgia’s ballot access laws need to be changed for the sake of all candidates who want to serve our citizens.”

In addition, six independent candidates submitted petitions to run for state legislature, of which, two candidates’ petitions have been invalidated because they did not have enough valid signatures. The Times-Herald reported online, Tuesday, August 3, 2010, that Keith Tompkins, independent candidate for state Rep. of Georgia’s 70th House district, said he thinks that he was denied ballot access because some of his petitions were on 8.5 by 11 paper instead of the size required by law. Verification of the petition signatures turned in by the other four independent candidates have not yet been returned but results are expected to be returned soon.

“Georgia needs to reform their ballot access laws immediately,” Tobin said. “These are real people who wanted to run for office and they were wrongly denied that chance. Candidates being kicked off the ballot for using normal paper instead of the bigger legal size paper on a few petitions should not be tolerated in a free and equal democracy.”

Brad Ploeger, Libertarian candidate for the 59th District in the Georgia House, was also recently denied a place on the ballot. Ploeger collected more petition signatures than the number required but his petitioning efforts still came up short because many signers were unsure of which house district they lived in when they signed his petition.

“More than two-thirds of the states use a filing fee system in lieu of signatures for candidates to gain ballot access,” Tobin said. “Georgia requires both filing fees and high numbers of signatures. Following the lead from other states of using filing fees instead of petition signatures would provide Georgia voters more choices without cluttering the ballot. Georgians deserve to have more independent candidates on their ballot for US House than one every 46 years.”

Free and Equal Elections Foundation
Christina Tobin, Founder & President
Phone: 312-320-4101

Free & Equal is a nonpartisan, nonprofit, public-policy advocacy organization dedicated to protecting the rights of the politically marginalized and disenfranchised, particularly those of third party and Independent candidates.