- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 17, 2014

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - A federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld Alabama’s requirement that third-party political candidates must submit tens of thousands of voter signatures before they can get listed on a statewide ballot.

The decision was a setback for Libertarian and other smaller political parties who have sought to increase their visibility to voters. The Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, upholding a lower court decision, said the political parties and candidates who challenged Alabama’s threshold failed to show how the requirement is overly burdensome.

Alabama requires third-party candidates to collect signatures of registered voters equal to 3 percent of the votes cast in the last governor’s election in order to be listed on a statewide ballot along with their party affiliation. That means third-party presidential candidates had to collect 44,828 signatures by the March primary in order to get on the 2012 November ballot. The Alabama Green Party, Constitution Party of Alabama, Libertarian Party of Alabama and candidates filed a 2012 lawsuit challenging the requirement.

“This law was clearly designed to make it nearly impossible for any party other than the Democrats or Republicans to put their name on the ballot,” Nicholas J. Sarwark, chairman of the Libertarian National Committee said in an emailed statement.

“The voters of Alabama should have a right to vote for a Libertarian candidate, but their lawmakers have rigged the game to keep the Libertarian Party off the ballot. And the 11th Circuit has upheld that rigged game as legal. We will continue to fight to give the voters the freedom to vote for a Libertarian in Alabama and every other state in this country,” Sarwark said.

The presidential candidates of the three smaller parties were listed on Alabama’s 2012 ballot as independent candidates - which only requires collecting 5,000 signatures - but not as the nominees of their respective parties.

Alabama Secretary of State Jim Bennett said he was pleased, but not surprised, by the appellate court’s decision.

“It was expected,” Bennett said.

U.S. District Judge W. Keith Watkins, in ruling for the state in 2013, said the candidates filed a lawsuit “despite having made no significant effort to secure the number of signatures needed.”

Jean Brown, chief legal adviser for the secretary of state, said the courts have ruled that third-party candidates should have to show a certain level of support before getting ballot access.

She said Americans Elect, which sought an online convention to pick a presidential candidate in 2012, obtained the required signatures in Alabama.

“Americans Elect shows that it can be done,” Brown said. The group ultimately fizzled and did not run a candidate for president.

Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News, said Alabama puts up the toughest hurdles for third-party candidates of almost any state in the nation. The result, he said, is that smaller political parties almost never appear on the Alabama ballot.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, has unsuccessfully pushed legislation that would roughly cut in half the required number of signatures.

“I think it’s a fairness issue. It’s not fair that if I don’t belong to one of the two big clubs that I can’t participate in the process,” Ward said.

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