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Ballot Access in North Carolina

“When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them. Where they speak out for the privileges of a puny group, I shall shout for the rights of all mankind.” – Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray, civil rights activist and legal theorist


A group of third-party supporters rally outside the North Carolina State Capitol on June 14, 2024.


By Joshua Peters

Ballot access in the United States has a complex history that intertwines with the broader narrative of voting rights. Historically, access to the ballot has been a contentious issue, with various restrictions placed on different groups to limit their voting power. These restrictions have included literacy tests, poll taxes, and outright voter intimidation.

Today, ballot access issues focus on establishing affirmative steps to prioritize the political power of the two major parties (Democrats and Republicans). While the primary focus is not on limiting individuals from getting to the ballot, the effects are similar, as it suppresses the voices of those who do not feel represented by the two major parties.

In North Carolina, the struggle for ballot access has mirrored national trends but with its own unique challenges and milestones. Ballot access in North Carolina, like in other states, involves a set of requirements that candidates must meet to appear on the ballot. These requirements vary depending on the office sought and whether the candidate is affiliated with a political party.

The primary hurdle is the requirement for 13,865 signatures, or signatures from registered voters amounting to at least 0.25% of the total votes cast for governor in the last election, to gain ballot access. Additionally, to retain ballot access, new parties must secure at least 2% of the vote in a statewide race to maintain their status for future elections. Failure to do so forces them to restart the petition process, creating a continuous cycle of high thresholds to maintain ballot presence. For independent candidates, they must gather signatures from 4% of the registered voters in the relevant district or state, depending on the office they seek. This percentage is one of the highest in the nation, making it particularly difficult for independent candidates to compete. Consequently, North Carolina is one of the most challenging states for third parties and independent candidates to gain ballot access.

In addition to collecting the required signatures, the county and state boards of elections must verify the signatures. This process, unfortunately, has been shown to be highly political because the North Carolina State Board of Elections (NCSBE) is governed by the two major parties, who have an incentive to prevent new political parties from becoming established and challenging their power. This situation demonstrates the coalescing of political power within the government to suppress the voice of the people. Frequent legal battles in North Carolina, often resulting in court interventions to modify or strike down restrictive provisions, combined with a complex and daunting legal and bureaucratic framework, create significant challenges for smaller political entities trying to navigate the ballot access system.

In 2022, the Green Party's attempt to gain ballot access faced significant obstacles. Despite gathering the required number of signatures, the verification process became a battleground, with allegations of bias and unfair practices emerging. The party's struggle highlighted the systemic barriers that new and smaller parties face in North Carolina.

The North Carolina Democratic Party employed several tactics to suppress ballot access for the Green Party. Firstly, they arbitrarily scrutinized the submitted signatures, leading to a high rejection rate for minor discrepancies. This intense scrutiny was seen as an attempt to disqualify as many signatures as possible. Secondly, there were accusations of delays and obstructions in the verification process, causing the Green Party to miss critical deadlines. Thirdly, the Democratic Party used intimidation tactics against those that signed the petition and exerting undue influence over the State Board of Elections, which is responsible for verifying the signatures, resulting in biased decisions against the Green Party, as the vote to reject the Green Party’s ballot access was along party lines. Republicans had voted to grant access. After taking the matter to court, Democrats lost, leading to the Green Party gaining access and the Democrats paying the Green Party's legal fees.

Similarly, in 2024, We the People and Justice for All encountered substantial resistance in their quest for ballot access. The signature verification process again became a contentious issue, with accusations that the major parties were leveraging their control over the state board of elections to suppress competition. These incidents underscore the ongoing difficulties that alternative political parties face in breaking through the entrenched two-party system. Again, third parties were denied ballot access along party lines, with Democrats on the NCSBE voting not to certify the signatures.

The resistance faced by We the People and Justice for All in 2024 mirrored the challenges encountered by the Green Party. Both new and smaller parties were subjected to arbitrary scrutiny and rejection of signatures, coupled with bureaucratic hurdles designed to limit new parties from having ballot access. Such tactics reveal the systemic obstacles and partisan interference that continue to hinder the democratic process in North Carolina, reinforcing the dominance of the two major parties and limiting voter choice.

The restrictive ballot access laws in North Carolina have significant implications for the state's political dynamics. These high barriers to entry limit political diversity, as voters often have few choices beyond the Democratic and Republican candidates, which restricts political discourse and the representation of diverse viewpoints. Additionally, voters who do not align with the major parties may feel disenfranchised because their preferred candidates or parties struggle to appear on the ballot, leading to lower voter engagement and participation. Furthermore, the stringent requirements reinforce the dominance of the two major parties, making it difficult for new or smaller parties to gain a foothold and challenge the status quo.

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