Grassroots political organizations nationwide are reporting a surge in interest from potential 2018 candidates. We see that in Alabama as well, and it’s a welcome change. In recent election cycles, Alabama Democrats have had problems recruiting even sacrificial candidates for state, local, and even federal races. In 2014, fewer than half of state legislative seats had two candidates.
This year, however, we already have a hotly contested Senate race to fill the elfin shoes of former Senator Jeff Sessions. The crowded primary ballot includes 10 Republicans and 8 Democrats. The race for governor looks to be just as crowded.
Some potential candidates, though, are pondering a different path, hoping to eschew partisan labels and run as “Independent candidates.” You can’t fault their reasoning. President Trump is doing his best to poison the Republican brand with everyone but his die-hard supporters, while the Alabama Democratic Party has been “dead, or maybe just resting” for years, and is unpopular with even grassroots state Democrats, who are hoping for reform.
“Independent Candidate” sounds like an attractive option, in comparison. After all, what’s not to like about “independence?” We fought a war for it, after all, and the “independent” candidate is free of baggage, not beholden to any special interests or party bigwigs, and free to pick and choose policy proposals free of political dogma.
The problem is that a lot of these candidates are new to politics and have no idea what they’re getting into. Running for office with the support of a political party is difficult, but running for office alone is exponentially more challenging.
Much of that is due to Alabama election law, which seems designed to protect the two-party political structure (just ask the third-parties who struggle with Alabama ballot access requirements).
In 2004, 2008, and 2012, Alabama was part of a small minority of states where the national minor party presidential campaigns, including the Libertarians and Greens, could only appear on the ballot as Independents. Alabama has had no Federal or Statewide independent or minor party candidates on the ballot since 2002. Additionally, with Alabama’s current ballot access laws independent candidates have no provisions to retain ballot access, even if they succeed in being elected to office.
Consider these barriers:
- Signature Requirements: an Independent candidate for statewide office must gather valid signatures from registered voters equal to 3% of the total statewide vote in the last election for Governor. That totals just over 36,000 valid signatures for an Independent candidate. Note the emphasis on valid signatures: expect up to 10% or more of all signatures gathered to be considered invalid because the person wasn’t registered, the information isn’t legible, the petition isn’t filled out correctly, or any other reason the state can come up with.
- Fundraising Disadvantage: Candidates running in the primary (Independents don’t since they’re not affiliated with a party), can begin fundraising one year before the primary. Independent candidates can’t fundraise until one year before the general election. That gives party candidates a six-month jump on fundraising.
- Ballot Retention: Suppose that, against all odds, you win! Well, that whole petition and fundraising process starts all over again for the next election. Even as an incumbent, you aren’t guaranteed a spot on the general election ballot.
The other barriers aren’t as obvious if you’ve never run for office or been a campaign volunteer.
- Straight Party Voting: As much as a candidate may dislike “partisan labels” and “party politics,” the fact is that just having a party affiliation entitles you to a certain base level of support from voters. Over half of Alabama voters in the 2012 election voted straight party (meaning all Democrats or all Republicans).
- State Party Support: Yes, you won’t get much from the state Democratic Party, but they can offer one big competitive advantage: VoteBuilder. It’s a web-based voter file system that provides information on voters and allows you to target messaging, create walk lists for canvassing, etc. I’m sure Republicans have much the same thing, but I’m sure glad my name isn’t on it!
- Local Party Support: County party committees can be a candidate’s best friend. They don’t take sides in primary campaigns, but will stock signs, stickers, and literature for all candidates. They often organize events and invite primary candidates to appear and speak with voters and the media. Once a candidate is the party nominee, the county committee does all that and more. A robust county party (not all counties have one) eliminates the need for candidates to maintain campaign offices across the state, provides volunteers for phone calls and canvassing, organizes events, and helps get out the vote.
All of that is difficult for an Independent to do in a local race – just ask Rep. Harri Anne Smith, Alabama’s lone Independent legislator – but it’s almost impossible to pull off in a statewide campaign.
The statewide Independent candidate loses half a year of fundraising time, spends a large amount of time, money, and effort just getting on the ballot, and has no organic support structure to help with statewide organizing.
Now, you may argue that “2018 is different” and voters are “tired of labels.” And you may be right. But go into the race with your eyes (and wallet) wide open. Oh, and good luck. You’ll need it!
Note: I’m not defending the current system that is obviously stacked against third-parties and Independents, but it’s the system we have now. Understand the rules before you sign up to play!