In 2018, the Libertarian Party candidate for governor in Arkansas, Mark West, received 2.9 percent of the vote. Early this year, Arkansas state lawmakers and Governor Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, teamed up to raise the threshold for automatic ballot access for third parties.
The new mark: 3 percent.
For candidates and political parties outside the Republican/Democratic duopoly, one of the biggest impediments to winning elections is simply getting your name in front of the voters on Election Day. Thanks to state laws that require parties get to a certain amount of the vote to automatically qualifiy for the ballot in future elections, and other rules that often mandate third party or independent voters must collect thousands more signatures than their major party opponents to be included on the ballot, smaller parties are forced to spend valuable and scarce resources to gain simple ballot access.
As what happened in Arkansas this year demonstrates, these rules are always arbitrary, often unfair, and usually set by the very interests that benefit from them: the two biggest political parties.
A bill introduced in Congress this week by libertarian-leaning Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) would put an end to that practice—at least for congressional elections, over which Congress has final authority. His proposal, the Ballot Fairness Act, would prohibit unequal ballot access rules in congressional elections, meaning that third parties and independent candidates could not be held to different standards than Democratic and Republican candidates.
"Laws should not advantage particular political parties or discriminate against candidates who choose not to affiliate with a party," says Amash. "The Ballot Fairness Act helps equalize the treatment of candidates so elections will be fairer and voters will have more options."
His bill would also prohibit straight-ticket voting—an option available to voters in some states that allows the ability to cast a vote for a party's entire slate of candidates by making a single choice, rather than casting votes in each race individually—in congressional elections. Amash has previously said that the existence of straight-ticket voting makes it "prohibitive to run outside of the major parties."
Like unequal ballot access laws, straight-ticket voting provides an obvious advantage to major party candidates, and it does change the outcome of elections. As Reason's Matt Welch has previously noted: Where it's available, citizens are more likely to vote a straight-party ticket. They are also considerably more likely to cast a vote in down-ballot partisan races, but considerably less likely to vote in nonpartisan races or for ballot initiatives.
Both reforms included in Amash's proposal would be beneficial to American democracy by eliminating tools that Democrats and Republicans wield against upstart candidates and parties. With a majority of Americans unhappy with both major parties, it would appear that the electorate is clamoring for additional options—options that are often denied because of structural impediments facing alternatives.
"Amash's bill, if enacted, would be a huge benefit to the Libertarian Party, removing the unfair ballot access hurdles our Congressional candidates face all across the country," Nicholas Sarwark, chairman of the Libertarian National Committee, tells Reason. "It also is a good test for which members of Congress really want more participation in the political process, since it would allow more voices from across the political spectrum to participate in elections without unfair barriers created by the two old parties."
That's also why the bill probably doesn't have much of a chance of getting a hearing or a vote. Amash is a rare and welcome outlier, but most members of Congress are probably unlikely to support a bill that does away with structural advantages they could take advantage of in the next election.
The decision to introduce this bill could also raise more questions about whether Amash plans to jump ship from the Republican Party from which the five-term congressman seems increasingly alienated. Whether he's concerningly quoting Adele lyrics on Twitter, or being profiled by CNN as the "loneliest Republican in Congress," Amash's committment to small government and free markets stands in stark contrast to a Trumpified GOP that seems to have little interest in either. There has been speculation that Amash could seek the Libertarian Party nomination for president in 2020—and Amash says he won't rule it out.
Indeed, if you were putting together a list of things Congress could do to make life a little easier for America's downtrodden third parties, a bill like Amash's would be at or near the top. Ballot access fights are time-consuming and expensive, and every hour spent collecting signatures or every dollar spent on lawyers to challenge unfair access laws (as the LP is currently doing in several states) takes away from what could be used to campaign.
Is Amash acting as a third party mole in Congress? Is he symbolically flipping the bird to the GOP that has abandoned him, as he tries to weaken the major parties' structural advantages in elections? It's Justin Amash we're talking about, so the right answer—if not the most provocative one—is that he's probably just doing what he thinks is right, even if it means he's all alone.