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It's not easy being Green: Third party faces long odds to make it onto Texas ballot

No Green Party candidate got enough votes in 2016 to guarantee the party a place on the November ballot. As it prepares for its convention, the party isn’t optimistic that it can collect the signatures it needs to be a player in this year’s election.

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Texas third parties typically face an uphill battle during election years as they struggle to compete with the state’s two dominant parties. But a big shadow hangs over the state’s Green Party as members prepare for their state convention this weekend.

In order to get their candidates on the general election ballot without a petition, third parties must have at least one candidate win more than 5 percent of the vote in a statewide race during the previous election cycle. Libertarian petroleum engineer Mark Miller barely cleared that hurdle for his party in 2016, winning 5.3 percent of the vote in the race against Railroad Commissioner Wayne Christian.

But the Green Party, which meets in Houston this weekend, didn't hit the mark. Martina Salinas, who also ran for railroad commissioner, earned the biggest share of the party’s statewide votes at 3.2 percent.

“Martina getting 287,000 votes was a really big deal for us,” said Jan Richards, a Green Party of Texas candidate who’s running for governor. “We were very proud of her, but yes, it was disappointing we didn’t make the 5 percent.”

One reason the party fell short was the Democrats’ resurgence on the statewide ballot: In 2016, they fielded candidates in every statewide judicial race for the first time since 2010. The Green Party typically has relied on judicial races that lack Democratic candidates to reach the 5 percent threshold.

“Unfortunately, the bulk of the non-Republican votes went to the Democrats,” said Wesson Gaige, a co-chair for the state’s Green Party. “Martina appeared to be our best bet.”

There’s an alternative route to getting their candidates on the ballot: Securing nearly 50,000 valid signatures during a 75-day period that began March 13. The signatures must come from registered voters who didn’t vote in either the March 6 Republican or Democratic primary or participate in another party’s 2018 convention, according to a spokesman for the Texas secretary of state.

Both Richards and Gaige said they’re doubtful their party will get the signatures in time.

“I really don’t expect us to be able to do that. I don’t expect that we have more than several thousand at this time, if that many,” Gaige said. “It’s impossible to gather these signatures as a volunteer effort.”

In 2010, the party was in a similar position and got help from an unlikely ally. That year, an out-of-state group with ties to the Republican Party funneled $532,000 to the Green Party’s ballot effort, an effort that Democrats claimed was intended to strip votes away from Bill White, their gubernatorial candidate.

Gaige said it would cost the Green Party upwards of $200,000 to do the outreach necessary to get the required 47,183 signatures by the the May 29 deadline.

Former Democratic political consultant Harold Cook said the Green Party’s struggle just to get on the ballot calls their legitimacy as a party into question.

“There’s running to win an election and there’s running to just be a spoiler,” said Cook. “If you don’t even have the resources to get petition signatures to get on the ballot, you certainly don’t have the resources to run statewide in the state of Texas.”

Richards, the Green Party gubernatorial candidate, said the uncertainty the party faces heading into November won’t stop the Greens from choosing candidates for state and federal offices this weekend. 

“The attitude by some members of the Green Party is that we shouldn’t have even tried,” Richards said. “If we don’t try, we look to the public like we’re just giving up. And that’s unacceptable to me. Most people don’t even think we’ll get ballot access — and they’re probably be right — but I still think we still have to put forth the effort.”

Richards said since the Green Party is so small in Texas, she’d be happy if 50 people showed up to the convention.

Texas Libertarians, who are guaranteed a spot on the November ballot, will also hold their convention this weekend in Houston.

John Wilford, the party’s state chair, said the party, which champions low taxes and limited government, will focus on making its platform more concise.

“Our ballot situation being much less tenuous actually affords us a little more opportunity to focus on education and getting a solid Libertarian message out there as opposed to trying to hit metrics that’ll keep us on the ballot,” Wilford said.

Green Party leaders hope their struggle to get on the ballot highlights the barriers they say the state puts in front of smaller political parties.

“The laws in place in Texas are really made to prohibit participation by anybody outside of the Republican or Democratic Party,” Gaige said. “Part of being a party is having the ballot access work to do. If you’re not going to put in the work to get on the ballot, then your question really is, why be a party at all?”

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