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Amash Bill Would Prohibit Unequal Ballot Access Laws, Straight-Ticket Voting in Congressional Elections

The libertarian-leaning Michigan congressman takes aim at two scourges of American democracy, despite what it would mean for his party's political interests.

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/NewscomBill Clark/CQ Roll Call/NewscomIn 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.

Photo Credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Newscom

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  • Eddy||

    Ballot access, yes, but also...straight-ticket voting, sure!

    The very arguments the post marshals against straight-ticket voting can be used in favor of the procedure. There seems to be (pardon the term) a constituency for straight-ticket voting, voters who want to vote by party, not by specific candidate. It's not a question of whether we agree with that preference, but whether we should be a little bitch and make voting more annoying for voters who want to vote by party.

  • Eddy||

    One caveat: There should be a warning in the straight-ticket box: "Voting straight-ticket won't affect nonpartisan races or ballot measures."

  • SchillMcGuffin||

    I broadly agree. A straight-ticket option is a function of convenience, rather than limiting choice. If one's objective is to hobble the major parties, I'd actually favor taking party affiliation off the ballot altogether and placing candidates randomly (though that would slow down a process already often painfully slow, and arguably discriminate against the elderly).

    Disclosure: I'm a poll-worker, and conscious of balloting changes from a practical perspective.

  • buybuydandavis||

    Voting should be made more annoying. Checks and balances should go to the people as well.

    Yeah, you have to suck it up and actually vote for individuals. If that's too much effort, maybe you shouldn't be worrying your pretty little head over elections.

  • Kevin Smith||

    People are free to vote for every candidate of a particular party individually. If its too annoying to spend 5 minutes actually looking at who you are voting for maybe you should just stay home on election day, as getting out of bed may be too much of a hassle for you (fortunately I have no problem with no-excuse absentee ballots)

  • JFree||

    ELECTIONS are separate individual choices not meta-preferences. There is absolutely no legitimate reason why they should instead be transformed into meta-preferences.

    Even IF one made a case for why meta-preferences should be counted as votes in an election; then the only legitimate way of including 'meta-preferences' in the vote-casting process would be to include every POSSIBLE set of meta-preferences (eg vote for all/only women, vote against any incumbent, etc). Otherwise, the particular meta-preference chosen (straight party) is favoring one set of voters over a different set of voters.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    US Constitution, Article I, Section 4:
    The times, places and manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by law make or alter such regulations, except as to the places of choosing Senators.
    [...]

  • buybuydandavis||

    But "muh liberty"!
    I wanna vote how I wanna vote!

  • Ken Shultz||

    I find Amash's and Rand Paul's antics annoying and counterproductive sometimes, but one of the things they show is that there is still a strain of principle in the Republican party--that doesn't exist on the Democrat side at all.

    Yes, there are Republicans who will stand against their own president and the rest of the Republican party on principle.

    Show me the Democrat who will oppose something a Democrat president or the rest of the party wants to do--because it's unconstitutional.

    The Democrats will oppose what the Republicans want to do on that basis, but are there any principles that all the Democrats won't run over in pursuit of something they want?

    Amash opposes Trump's runaround Congress to build the wall because he thinks it betrays the principles of the Constitution--not because he opposes border security.

    Likewise, Amash isn't in favor of gifting the Democrats an electorate. I think he really is just standing on principle. And if he thinks doing so will behoove his political aspirations over the long run, well, I can't see anything wrong with that either.

  • ||

    Yes, there are Republicans who will stand against their own president and the rest of the Republican party on principle.

    Athwart all popular government.

    There are a several handfuls who would stand in front of a mass of tens of thousands and say that they shouldn't execute an innocent child. Most would do so because the child is white or black or Mexican or the crowd was largely composed of democrats or republicans, or the larger crowd judging their actions were democrats or republicans. Paul, Amash, and Massie generally come the closest to believably effacing that they're against killing children intrinsically.

  • Ken Shultz||

    Here's an example of what I'm talking about, hot off the press:

    "WASHINGTON—House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) dismissed efforts by Senate Republicans to change the law governing national emergencies rather than rebuke President Trump directly on his border declaration, saying the House wouldn't take up such legislation."

    http://www.wsj.com/articles/pe.....552496270?

    So, yeah, Pelosi won't take a vote in the House on legislation to reign in any president's ability to call national emergencies in the future--because the senate legislation wouldn't apply to the current iteration of Trump pinching however many billion for the wall.

    It's all about whatever partisan horseshit is going on right now.

    It's not as if preventing future national emergency declarations would make it impossible to hold a separate vote on this current one, either. There's no trade off or mutually exclusive alternatives. Just total contempt by the Democrat leadership for the principle of the separation of powers--unless there's some partisan advantage for the democrats right now. in fact, Trump may win reelection. If you can't get the Democrats to support the separation of powers when they're not in the White House, how will we get them to support it when they're in the White House?

  • buybuydandavis||

    "Show me the Democrat who will oppose something a Democrat president or the rest of the party wants to do--because it's unconstitutional."

    Unfair comparison. Dems don't believe in the Constitution, or Rule of Law generally.

    I don't follow the Dem loons in detail, but I'm sure they has their congressional prima donnas who opposed Obama at times.

  • BearOdinson||

    So I get that Rs and Ds seem to want to limit ballot access. Fine. But honest question: should there be any ballot access requirements? Mind you, no one is preventing anyone from running or appearing on a ballot. Should AUTOMATIC ballot access be granted only to Rs, Ds AND Ls? Should it be that the first time a "party" appears on a ballot it has to have X signatures on a petition, but forever more it will automatically appear? Regardless of the performance of that candidate?

    And then that doesn't address "independent" candidates who declare no party affiliation.

  • Eddy||

    Any qualified person, without discrimination, should be able to get on the ballot for a uniform fee. Maybe require that they prove they have a campaign committee.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Paying a local nominal fee to get anyone the ballot is perfectly reasonable way to run elections.

  • awildseaking||

    "prohibit straight-ticket voting"

    THANK YOU. I cannot overstate how happy I am that someone is finally addressing this. Local politics have become complete cancer because of straight ticket voting. I volunteered for the local GOP in my township in 2016 and 2018 and in both cases, the majority of voters in my township voted straight party ticket (about 80%). The result of this is that state and municipal election outcomes become a national referendum. Democrats swept our otherwise strong "Republican" district (first D majority in almost 100 years, but I keep it real, our Rs are very left wing lately and don't defend 1A, 2A or the Constitution in general anymore) for no other reason. Local politics aren't as "political" and the candidates had very similar views bar the major R/D difference at this level (property taxes), yet we lost 60/40 in what was obviously a "Fuck Drumpf" vote. Multi term incumbents who people loved, with decades of private and public experience, were replaced by complete outsiders who got a boatload of DNC money and didn't really say anything other than orange man bad. We literally had a former board of supervisors President run in a special election just to help the board fill a vacant slot for a year and she got annihilated for having an R next to her name. I could tell that nobody actually paid any attention to what we were talking about and it was clear our local party officials had no idea how to win in that environment.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Every voter should be forced to look at each category for political office and the candidates. Then select one.

    It has never taken more than 10 minutes to actually vote and I never waited in line to vote for more than 10 minutes.

    20 minutes is a bargain to keep this Republic alive and well.

  • buybuydandavis||

    Wah! Don't you oppress me!

  • Bubba Jones||

    Your voters get what they deserve.

    I vote straight party libertarian and then make adjustments down ballot as needed.

  • Demosthenes of Athens||

    National politics are poison to local politics. I'd be for getting rid of party affiliation on the ballot for county and below. It really shouldn't matter at that level. Get to know the candidate and their positions. If you can't be bothered, leave it blank.

  • ducksalad||

    "If you can't be bothered, leave it blank."

    The more likely algorithm: (1) Vote for the name that sounds familiar. (2) If none sound familiar, vote for the one that sounds like the gender and ethnicity you prefer. (3) If you still can't tell, vote for the one listed first on the ballot.

    Those are all well documented effects.

  • ducksalad||

    Short term solution, already widespread, is to hold local elections on a different day, usually in the Spring.

    Of course that leads to water board elections where the poll workers outnumber the voters, and school board elections dominated by teachers and their families, but I figure if someone else cares and I don't why not let them make the decision.

  • Bubba Jones||

    don't the current rules apply equally to all parties? I don't get it.

  • Just Say'n||

    Voting is determined by states. Amash likes to cite the document that his bill would violate in faith, if not in law.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Article I, Section 4 of the US Constitution allows for Congress to regulate state elections of federal Representatives and Senators.

  • Azathoth!!||

    Ballot access should be purchased for a flat fee by anyone who wishes to be on the ballot. It should include their name, what they're running for and, if desired, the party they are a MEMBER of.

    For an additional fee they can be included on a straight party ticket--provided that they have either won the party's nomination in the case of a contested primary or gotten the parties endorsement if not in a contested primary.

    There should be no signatures or vote percentages required AT ALL

  • buybuydandavis||

    Order on the ballot matters, particularly as the list gets long. Lots of people means that those who make up the ballots gain power.

    Another change to balloting - candidates appear randomly.

  • dangfitz||

    If Justin Amash runs as a Libertarian, he'll get my vote at the convention and the general, and I'll be a maxxed-out donor in the primary and general. Please please please please...

  • AD-RtR/OS!||

    Would this bill disallow CA from imposing its "jungle primary" and "top two system" on Congressional Elections?

  • Kevin Smith||

    I don't think so, and it would probably prompt other states to do the same

    A State shall impose the same requirements for appearing
    on the ballot in a general congressional election held in
    the State on all candidates in the election, without regard
    to whether or not a candidate is the nominee of a political
    party.

    Since CA has all candidates (Democrats, Republicans, third party, and independent) go through the same primary process it seems like it would be allowed

  • buybuydandavis||

    "The libertarian-leaning Michigan congressman takes aim at two scourges of American democracy, despite what it would mean for his party's political interests."

    Why paint this law as necessarily against the interest of Republicans?

    It's against the Dems and Republicans generally, and it's unclear which side it benefits overall. Likely each gains advantage in some context over the other.

    Just selling a "Amash hates the Republicans" narrative?

  • dxh@yahoo.com||

    ALL elections should be WRITE IN. All ballots should nothing but the position and a blank line.

    1) If there are to many names for you to remember how to spell correctly, then that tells you that there are too many positions and your government needs to be smaller.

    2) If you don't know how to correctly write in your candidates name, then you do not know who you are voting for and your vote should not be counted.

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