The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia handed the Libertarian Party a victory today by finding that Georgia’s ballot access requirements violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteen Amendment. The Secretary of State, who could appeal the ruling, has 21 days to address the opinion of the District Court.
The case, Cowen v. Raffensperger, was filed in November 2017 while Brian Kemp still served as Secretary of State. Martin Cowen wanted to be the Libertarian Party candidate in Georgia’s 13th Congressional District. He was joined in the lawsuit by Allen Buckley, a registered voter in the 13th District who wanted to vote for Cowen; Aaron Gilmer, who wanted to run in Georgia’s 9th Congressional District; and John Monds, who wanted to vote for a Libertarian in Georgia’s 2nd Congressional District.
However, Georgia’s ballot access laws are unnecessarily restrictive for third-party and independent candidates. Because the Libertarian Party of Georgia isn’t a political party under state law and is instead considered a “political body,” a candidate must receive the signatures of 5 percent of registered voters in the district in which he or she wants to run. The 5 percent threshold hasn’t been met for a third-party or independent candidate since Milton Lent, who ran as an independent for Georgia’s 1st Congressional District, in 1964. Cowen wasn’t able to meet the signature requirements in 2018 and ran as a write-in candidate.
The ballot access hurdles for statewide political body candidates are very different. Once a political body receives ballot access, a statewide candidate must receive at least 1 percent of the vote to maintain that ballot access in the next election.
In September 2019, the District Court ruled in favor of the Secretary of State. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed the decision and remanded it back to the District Court in June 2020. “The challenge here is not between political party and political body candidates for the same offices, but between political body candidates for different offices,” wrote Judge Lanier Anderson. “[T]he Party argues, its statewide candidates need to gather zero signatures while a full slate of congressional candidates would need to gather 321,713 valid signatures.”
Anderson also noted that the District Court “did not separately address the Party’s Equal Protection challenge, instead considering it in tandem with the associational-rights challenge.” The Eleventh Circuit sent the case back to the District Court for consideration of the Equal Protection Clause violation.
Today, the District Court granted Cowen and his co-plaintiffs summary judgment on their Equal Protection Clause claim and directed the Secretary of State “to submit within 21 days of the entry of this Order briefing proposing an appropriate remedy related to the First and Fourteenth Amendment claim and addressing their claim that Georgia’s 5% requirement violates the Equal Protection Clause because it was adopted with a discriminatory purpose.”
Libertarian Party of Georgia Chair Ryan Graham cheered the ruling. “Your right to run for office is as important as your right to vote. Candidates should represent their communities, not partisans who decide who can run. Republicans and Democrats got power and they shut the door behind them,” Graham said. “We’re the third party in line — and we’re tearing down the walls for everyone, the fourth and fifth and sixth. More choices on your ballot mean more voice in how you’re governed.”
Libertarian National Committee Chair Joseph Bishop-Henchman also welcomed the news, saying, “Georgia’s onerous ballot access requirements have kept everyone but Democrats and Republicans off the congressional ballot since 1964. Kudos to the court and to Georgia LP for vindicating our constitutional rights!”
It’s unclear if the Secretary of State plans to appeal the District Court’s ruling. The outcome, if not appealed, could mean Libertarian Party of Georgia congressional candidates see an easier path to ballot access in the 2022 midterm election.