Analysis: Texas Election Laws are Hard on Independents

Rick Perry campaigns at a meet and greet in Storm Lake, Iowa on August 17, 2015.
Rick Perry campaigns at a meet and greet in Storm Lake, Iowa on August 17, 2015.

[Editor's note: This story has been updated. If you'd like an email notice whenever we publish Ross Ramsey's column, click here.]

So you want to be an independent candidate for president and you want to be on the ballot in Texas?

You have until May 9, and there is some fine print to read first. You can’t run as an independent candidate here if:

• You have already run for president this cycle — or couldn’t get your name off of the ballot after you dropped out. In that case, you’re gonna have to file a lawsuit and win in court to get past the state’s “sore loser” law. It’s supposed to prevent people from taking two bites at the election apple in the same year.

• You voted in either the Republican or Democratic primary. That’s the Texas equivalent of declaring yourself as a member of one of those parties; if you’re in a political party, you’re not an independent.

 

Former Gov. Rick Perry has said he’s not running as a third-party candidate, and that is not just a matter of choice: He got out of the race early enough to keep his name off of the ballot, but he’s a reliable Republican primary voter. [Editor's note: As it turns out, Perry didn't vote in this year's primaries, so he would be eligible to run as an independent if he chose to do so.]

The only way you’ll get to see Perry on a presidential ballot is if the delegates to July’s Republican National Convention put him there. If you like to speculate about these things, you can live by this motto, which seems to suffice for most pundits these days: “It’s not impossible.”

It’s also not likely.

Most of the state’s independent candidates had to file notices of intent to run by the same Dec. 14 filing deadline met by Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Greens and others. Presidential candidates play under different rules and can file until the May deadline, but there’s more to it than just filling out the form.

They must gather petitions signed by 79,939 registered voters who, like the candidates themselves, did not take part in either the Republican or Democratic primaries.

Independents also have to have their vice presidential candidates on board when they are getting the petitions signed, so that the signers can see the full ticket they’re agreeing to put on the ballot.

The governor’s race in 2006 was a high point for independents, when Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman combined for 30.6 percent of the overall vote. That combined total outpaced Democrat Chris Bell (30 percent) and fell short of Perry’s 39 percent.

The best modern performance by an independent on a Texas statewide ballot was Ross Perot’s 22 percent in the 1992 race for president. George H.W. Bush got 40.6 percent and Bill Clinton got 37 percent. Perot’s total fell short of the Strayhorn/Friedman total 14 years later, but he did it without help from another independent.

 

Those were organized and, in two cases, well-financed candidacies. The point, 24 years ago, 10 years ago and now, however, is the same: Running as an independent is hard.

It’s almost like Republican and Democratic lawmakers over the years agreed to shut out the competition.

This year’s filing deadlines mean that if you want to run as an independent here, there’s no waiting until after the party primary results are complete. It’s possible that neither major party nomination will be locked down by the Texas filing deadline. In fact, given the pile of verified signatures that are required, a prospective candidate will need to get to work right away.

The deadline is less than seven weeks away.

They means they have to get everything completed before California, New Jersey, Nebraska, Oregon, Washington and several other states have held their primaries or caucuses. The independents won’t know whom they’re up against, for one thing, and can’t condition their candidacies on whether they like one of the major-party nominees.

In December, talk of an independent candidacy was mostly about Donald Trump — and the chance that he might go off-leash if the Republicans shut him out or if he didn’t win enough delegates in the GOP. Later, it was about whether former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg would run out of frustration with the party frontrunners.

Now it’s about other candidates — people like Perry, Mitt Romney and U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan have been mentioned — and the possibility that Republicans unhappy with their own nominee might try to put an independent candidate in the race after their national convention.

If they do, their candidate will have to get to the White House without going through Texas and its 38 electoral votes. 

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