Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein speaks at an event during the 2016 presidential campaign. Stein had to run in Georgia as a write-in candidate after the Green Party fell about 1,500 signatures short of the amount a federal district judge set after ruling the state’s previous standard was too high. (AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN / RODOLFO GONZALEZ)

Court upholds ruling for third-party presidential hopefuls in Georgia

The one-sentence ruling, by a unanimous three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, adopted the “well-reasoned opinion” issued in March by U.S. District Judge Richard Story in Atlanta. Story had significantly lowered the number of signatures required for so-called “third-party” candidates to petition to get on Georgia’s presidential ballot — from tens of thousands to 7,500.

The 11th Circuit’s ruling was notable in that it was issued less than a week after it heard arguments on the case — an exceptionally quick turnaround for a ruling by the busy court that oversees cases out of Georgia, Alabama and Florida.

“I think it’s a great decision,” said Laughlin McDonald, the director-emeritus of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project. “The state put up no evidence whatsoever as to voter confusion or ballot overcrowding.”

A spokeswoman for Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, in response to the ruling, said, “We respectfully disagree with the decision, and we are currently reviewing our options for appeal.” If the state appealed, it would likely ask the entire 11-member 11th Circuit court to review the decision.

Both the Georgia Constitution Party and the Georgia Green Party sued the state in 2012 over rules that they said effectively blocked most third-party candidates from getting onto the presidential ballot because the bar was set artificially high. In the year they sued, they argued they would have had to collect at least 50,334 signatures to meet the state’s then-standard.

State officials, in fighting the suit, had argued that the parties should have to show what Story called “a modicum of support.” They said that lower signature requirements could result in voter confusion and a crowded presidential ballot.

While the Democratic and Republican parties are not required to petition because they are essentially grandfathered into the current system, Georgia has long held that independent or third-party candidates could not automatically be placed on the presidential ballot unless the party had a statewide candidate in the previous general election who received votes equal to at least 1 percent of the total registered voters in the state.

If not, the law had said a candidate must otherwise have collected signatures from at least 1 percent of the registered voters who were eligible to vote in that race in the previous election. In 2012, when the lawsuit was filed, that would have amounted to at least 50,334 signatures.

At the time of his ruling, Story noted that the last time a third-party or independent candidate qualified for Georgia’s presidential ballot was 2000, when Pat Buchanan qualified for the Reform Party. Ross Perot did the same as an independent presidential candidate in 1992 and 1996.

Story, in his ruling, said he would prefer for the state Legislature to set new signature requirements.

Despite the ruling, neither the Constitution or Green parties qualified presidential candidates last year. Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein was a write-in candidate, after the party in Georgia fell about 1,500 signatures short of the lowered requirement set by Story.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

Related Stories