Third-party candidates may have an easier time getting on the ballot in Texas

T-shirts for sale at the Green Party Presidential Convention in Houston on Aug. 5, 2016. (Michael Stravato For The Texas Tribune, Michael Stravato For The Texas Tribune)

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A federal judge in Austin has blocked Texas from enforcing a more than century-old state law that requires third-party candidates to collect petition signatures on paper to qualify for a place on the ballot.

U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman ruled on Monday that the requirement was unconstitutionally applied to minor political parties and candidates. Major political parties are not required to get signatures.

“Texas first adopted that procedure in 1905, and defendants admitted that it has not been significantly updated or improved in the 118 years since,” Pitman said in his order.

The lawsuit was filed in 2019 by four minor political parties: the Libertarian Party of Texas, the Green Party of Texas, America's Party of Texas and the Constitution Party of Texas.

“Speaking for myself and for libertarians, generally, we are obviously partisan and want to benefit libertarian candidates and voters,” Whitney Bilyeu, chair of the Libertarian Party of Texas said. “One of the most important things to us is just preserving free and fair elections.”

Bilyeu said that now that signatures can be obtained electronically, less time, money and human resources will have to be invested by third-party candidates to get on the ballot.

State law required minor party candidates to obtain 83,717 paper signatures in 75 days.

Under the new order, they can now obtain those signatures electronically.

“I think the most important thing is that Judge Pitman’s order eliminates a major obstacle to free, open and competitive elections in Texas that present voters with meaningful choices at the polls,” Oliver Hall, founder and executive director of Center for Competitive Democracy said.

CCD was joined by Shearman & Sterling, a multinational law firm in representing the plaintiffs in this case.

“Judge Pitman got it right for sure on this one. We’re very pleased that we were able to play a role in it,” David Whittlesey, a partner for Shearman & Sterling’s Austin office said.

Whittlesey added the case was done on a pro bono basis and Shearman & Sterling’s New York and Washington, D.C., offices assisted in the lawsuit.

A statement released by the law firm said its plaintiffs would have had to spend $600,000 to obtain the required number of signatures to get on the ballot in 2020.

“The only way to get the signatures is if you have enough money to go out and hire people to go get the signatures. That’s not fair and that’s not right,” Whittlesey said.

“There are a lot of things that have changed in the 118 years, but not the way you fill out the forms to get on the ballot. So it’s a long overdue change. And we were excited to be a part of it.”

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