Minor parties face an uphill battle in elections dominated by Republicans and Democrats. It's a rare third-party candidate who can prevail, and it's even more challenging in a statewide contest.
What can happen, however, is that a minor party candidate can siphon enough votes to make a difference in a close race. That occurred 40 years ago in Ohio, when a Socialist Workers Party candidate for governor racked up 95,000 votes as Gov. John Gilligan was seeking re-election. Gilligan lost his bid for a second term by only 11,000 votes; he probably would have won had the third-party alternative not been on the ballot in 1974.
A recent change in Ohio's election law, shepherded through the legislature by Republicans with Gov. John Kasich's blessing, appears to have been aimed at preventing a similar situation from arising this year. Senate Bill 93 codified petition requirements for Libertarians, Green Party candidates and other minor parties, in the process denying them the right to participate in the May primary. Candidates could appear on the fall general election ballot by petition, a potentially more cumbersome process for those seeking statewide ballot placement.
The Libertarian Party filed suit to block the new law from taking effect during this year's election cycle, contending its candidates would be "unconstitutionally burdened" by the change in the nominating process.
U.S. District Court Judge Michael Watson agreed Tuesday in a decision that blocked SB 93 from being implemented. He ordered Secretary of State Jon Husted to provide minor party candidates with access to the primary and general elections as previously planned.
"The Ohio Legislature delayed passing a valid ballot access law for years, and retroactive application of SB 193 will cause plaintiffs to incur extra expense and duplicative efforts to comply with the new law. Those two factors alone amount to substantial unfairness," Watson wrote. The legislature, he said, "moved the proverbial goalpost in the midst of the game."
The judge's decision is a victory for ballot access for Libertarians, Greens and other organized political entities that provide alternatives to the two dominant political parties. It levels the playing field, leaving the goalpost in place, and removes a potentially unfair -- and undemocratic -- advantage for those who attempted to change the rules of the game.