A number of Ohio news outlets ran with a story today about the Libertarian Party (LP) presenting a "surprise" candidate — restaurateur and occasional state-level politician Charlie Earl — as its candidate for president in paperwork filed with the state. But this really isn't a surprise at all; the party frequently uses placeholder candidates to meet ballot access requirements.
In the case of Ohio, the LP placed Earl's name on petitions last March, as it began the process of collecting enough signatures for the party's candidate to appear on the 2016 presidential ballot. Because the LP didn't have its convention until late May — when Gary Johnson was chosen as the party's nominee — Earl's name has remained on the paperwork set to be filed with the state. But Ohio has a statutory provision which allows parties to substitute candidates within five days after submitting the ballot paperwork, and the LP fully intends to replace Earl's name with Johnson's before next week's deadline.
The whole "surprise" angle of this story was likely driven by a statement from Josh Eck, spokesman for the Ohio Secretary of State, who told assembled reporters, "I am not aware of any time in Ohio history where a candidate has filed petitions to run for president and asked for another name to be put on the ballot. Our legal team will need to review the revised code to find out if that is legally possible."
Richard Winger of Ballot Access News notes that the "reporters did not investigate, and simply believed the Ohio elections official," who was apparently unaware that that the LP used placeholder candidates in both 1996 and 2004.
LP Chairman Nicholas Sarwark tells Reason that despite the Office of the Secretary of State's general unhelpfulness in providing the requisite forms to replace the candidate, this story is a "big pile of nothing."
It is worth noting that Ohio is a particularly hostile state for third parties, which are referred to as "minor parties" under state law. According to Cleveland.com, in 2013 the state passed a law requiring third parties to acquire enough signatures to equal one percent of the previous presidential or gubernatorial vote (which based on 2012 voter turnout would be around 56,000) in order for the party to be recognized by the state. It gets worse. Third parties would need to win three percent of a presidential or gubernatorial vote to stay on the ballot for the next cycle.
Because of this, the LP is not recognized as a political party in the state of Ohio. But since only 5,000 signatures are required for an independent to make it onto the ballot, the LP has secured well over that amount with the intention of putting Johnson on the Ohio presidenital ballot as an independent.
Sarwark tells Reason "this is not abnormal" for third parties struggling for ballot access. He used Tennessee as an example of a state which requires 33,000 signatures for a political party's candidate to be recognized, but only 25 (that's a 2 and a 5) signatures for an independent candidate. In a state like Tennessee, it's simply the party's cost-benefit analysis which compels them to eschew the expense of collecting tens of thousands of signatures, and just running their candidate as an independent instead.
Sarwark seems confident that despite the "shenanigans" the LP has to go through in Ohio, Johnson will indeed appear on the ballot.