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Texas Legislature 2019

Critics say bill moving through Texas Legislature designed to aid GOP reelection bids

Supporters of the bill say it would expand ballot access. But some critics argue that the real goal is to make it tougher for Libertarians to get on the ballot and easier for Green Party candidates to do so.

Early voting at the Acres Home Multiservice Center in Houston on Oct. 26, 2014.

Texas Legislature 2019

The 86th Legislature runs from Jan. 8 to May 27. From the state budget to health care to education policy — and the politics behind it all — we focus on what Texans need to know about the biennial legislative session.

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A bill on track to reach Gov. Greg Abbott's desk appears designed to make it easier for Green Party candidates and harder for Libertarian candidates to get on the Texas ballot in 2020. Democrats say House Bill 2504 is a ploy by Republicans to boost their reelection bids while siphoning off votes from Democrats.

The bill from state Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, would make two major changes to how candidates with non-major parties run for office in Texas. The bill would require those candidates to either pay filing fees or secure a certain number of signatures to get on a November ballot. It also changes the threshold for guaranteeing a party a place on the ballot. The former provision could lead to fewer Libertarians running in 2020. The latter would mean the Green Party would likely earn a spot on the November ballot that year.

The bill tentatively passed the Senate on Sunday on a party-line 19-12 vote. If the chamber gives it final approval, it will head to the governor's desk.

Currently in Texas, Democrats and Republicans have to either pay a filing fee or secure a certain number of signatures to get on their party's primary ballot. Texas filing fees for a candidate range from $75 for county surveyor to $5,000 for U.S. senator.

The Libertarian Party, meanwhile, has avoided those requirements while routinely gaining a spot on the general election ballot by meeting a different threshold: at least one of its candidates has managed to win more than 5% of the vote in a statewide race during the previous election cycle.

Springer's bill would lower that ballot-access threshold for third parties to 2% of the vote in one of the last five general elections — a bar that the Green Party could also clear. In 2010, the Green Party candidate for comptroller drew 6% of the vote.

Glen Maxey, legislative affairs director for the Texas Democratic Party, suggested that the bill is an attempt to topple the efforts of Democrats to turn Texas purple next year. He highlighted in particular Democrats' efforts to flip the Texas House, which is currently made up of 83 Republicans and 67 Democrats. Libertarian candidates are widely viewed as pulling votes from Republicans, while Green Party candidates are more likely to pull votes from Democratic candidates, Maxey said. He predicted Green Party candidates would receive money from Republican donors to cover the filing fees.

"This is a major deal of cynical Republicans trying to once again put their thumb on the scale when they can't win an election fair and square," Maxey said. "They want to stack it with third-party candidates, so that unsuspecting voters that may think, 'Neither major party speaks for me, so I'm just going to go do a protest vote by voting for this Green Party candidate.'"

An earlier version of the bill only had the filing fee provision. When the bill reached the House floor earlier this month, Springer proposed an amendment that added the new ballot threshold language. The amendment passed after less than a minute of discussion, catching some House Democrats off guard amid an intense evening session of the House in which dozens of bills were heard.

Springer told The Texas Tribune that he added the floor amendment because the current threshold for parties to gain ballot access “protects the two-party system too much.” It isn't specifically targeting the Green Party, he said.

"Republicans are not afraid to give Texans more choice," he added.

Pat Dixon, former state chair of the Texas Libertarian Party, testified against the bill last week at a Senate State Affairs Committee hearing. Dixon said the bill would unfairly force Libertarians to pay filing fees in addition to the cost of their nominating convention.

When Democratic and Republican candidates pay filing fees to run for an office, the money helps pay for the election. Under HB 2504, third-party candidates would pay the same filing fees, but the money would go toward state or local funds, but not funds specifically devoted to running elections.

Kellis Ruiz, co-chair of the Tarrant County Green Party, testified in favor of HB 2504 last week, saying the filing fee is "less than 1% of the cost" compared to hiring petitioners to get the minimum number of signatures to put a candidate on the ballot. No Green Party candidates were listed on Texas ballots in 2018 because none of the party's statewide candidates drew 5% of the vote two years earlier. The party attempted to secure a spot on the general election ballot by meeting another threshold — collecting nearly 50,000 signatures. They failed miserably, collecting only 500 signatures.

On Sunday, when HB 2504 reached the Senate floor, Democrats raised concerns about how it would affect future elections. State Sen. José Menéndez D-San Antonio, said he was worried that making it easier for third parties to gain access to the ballot would be used to manipulate voters.

“My concern is that by lowering the threshold, we’re opening up the possibilities of people starting to play games with adding candidates to ballots with no intention of having them win, but actually disrupt what’s going to happen at the top of the ballot,” Menéndez said.

The bill's senate sponsor, Bryan Hughes, said the bill would impact both major political parties by putting the threshold for ballot access at a “more inclusive level.” The Mineola Republican did not say which party he thought would be more affected by the legislation but instead suggested there was “a lot of overlap.”

If the bill reaches Abbott's desk, he can choose to sign it, veto it or let it become law without his signature.

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