Democrats prepare aggressive response to third-party threats

The Democratic Party, increasingly alarmed by the possibility that third-party candidates could tip the election in favor of former President Donald J. Trump, has assembled a new team of lawyers charged with tracking down the threat, particularly in key battlefield states.

The effort comes as challengers — including independent candidates Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Cornel West as well as groups like No Labels as well as the Green Party — have stepped up efforts to qualify for state elections before critical deadlines. spring and summer.

The legal offensive, led by Dana Remus, who served as President Biden's White House counsel until 2022, and Robert Lenhard, an outside party lawyer, will be assisted by a communications team dedicated to countering candidates whose Democrats fear they will harm Mr. Biden. This amounts to a sort of legal Whac-a-Mole, a state-by-state counterinsurgency plan ahead of an election that could hinge on just a few thousand votes in key states.

The goal “is to ensure that all candidates follow the rules and seek to hold them accountable when they don’t,” Mr. Lenhard said.

Third-party candidates have haunted Democrats in recent presidential elections: Ralph Nader is widely criticized for costing Al Gore the White House in 2000, and some in the party have argued that Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, attracted Hillary Clinton's vote in 2016. In swing states, she narrowly lost to Mr. Trump.

There was little third-party activity in 2020, and it is unclear what effect the possible presence of such candidates on the ballot would have this year. But Democrats' fears are particularly acute this year, with polls suggesting that Mr. Trump's base of support is much more fixed than Mr. Biden's, meaning it is possible that some of the president's voters are open to an alternative.

However, it is unclear whether foreign candidates, particularly Mr. Kennedy, would draw more inspiration from Mr. Trump's camp or that of Mr. Biden. The conventional wisdom within the Democratic Party now is that any no vote for Mr. Biden benefits Mr. Trump, and some worry that giving people more choices on the ballot is more likely to hurt Mr. Biden.

Access to the presidential ballot is a complicated and costly process for candidates, especially those who are not affiliated with any party, even a minor one. Laws vary from state to state, with some simply requiring a fee or a few thousand signatures, and others requiring tens of thousands of signatures collected under tight deadlines, as well as other administrative hurdles.

The state's rules limiting access to ballots “ensure that people on the ballot have legitimate bases of support, and it's not just a vanity project,” Lenhard said.

Independent candidates and third-party leaders view restrictive voting laws, and efforts to monitor and enforce them, as undemocratic, exemplifying the type of bipartisan political machinations they claim to be trying to combat.

“What are the barriers to accessing the ballot? These are obstacles to free speech,” said Mr. Nader, who ran for president four times as a third party. He described voting laws in the United States as “the worst in the Western world, by order of magnitude.”

Gauging the popularity of third-party and independent candidates is a challenge for pollsters. If they are not listed in a poll, their support, of course, will not be counted. But when a poll includes them, the results tend to significantly overestimate their support, the data shows.

What the polls clearly show is that a significant bloc of American voters are not enthusiastic about either Mr. Biden or Mr. Trump.

In recent months, Democrats have been less concerned with No Labels, the political group that had pledged to run a centrist presidential ticket. The group said it was running in 18 states, but it had difficulty finding viable candidates.

Instead, much of Democrats' energy — and concern — has focused on Mr. Kennedy, 70, who first challenged Mr. Biden in the primary before announcing an independent presidential candidacy. An environmental lawyer and scion of one of America's great political families, Mr. Kennedy has gained notoriety in recent years for his promotion of anti-vaccine lies and conspiracy theories, as well as his broadly anti-establishment and anti- businesses. He has notoriety and a donor base.

A recent Fox News national poll put Mr. Kennedy's support at about 13 percent, evenly split between the two candidates. In Georgia, considered a swing state in national elections, he averages about 6 percent in recent polls, according to FiveThirtyEight Poll Averages.

Mr. Kennedy's campaign says he is officially on the ballot in just one state, Utah, and has enough signatures to get on the ballot in New Hampshire, Hawaii and Nevada, too. considered a key battleground state this year.

A super PAC supporting Mr. Kennedy said it had gathered enough signatures to help him get on the ballot in Arizona, Michigan and Georgia — all swing states — as well as South Carolina. In February, the Democratic Party filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, accusing the PAC and the Kennedy campaign of illegal coordination in signature-gathering efforts.

The PAC, American Values ​​2024, had pledged last year to spend up to $15 million on ballot access efforts on Mr. Kennedy's behalf, but announced last week that he would no longer participate in the signature collection process.

Tony Lyons, co-founder of the group, said it would continue to fight both parties “when they attempt to interfere with the constitutional rights of American voters who overwhelmingly want independent candidates on the ballot.” vote.”

While Mr. Lenhard's team is involved in reviewing third-party candidates for possible FEC violations, Democrats see ballot access as the main issue for the police, and legal team The party mobilized local contingents of lawyers throughout the country, as well as analysis, research and field teams. .

Most states require independent candidates to obtain thousands of signatures to get on the ballot — some, like Texas and New York, require more than 100,000 names.

A handful of states require a vice president to be on the ticket to ensure ballot access.

In some states, the quickest way for independent candidates to run for office is to form a new political party.

Mr. Kennedy and his supporters have formed a party called We the People, which his campaign says will get him on the ballot in California, Delaware, Hawaii, Mississippi and North Carolina. Mr. West's supporters formed the Justice for All party to secure elections in at least five states.

Mr. Lenhard said the efforts of these new parties would be monitored to ensure that “to the extent that you are seeking new political party status, you are actually a political party – a large group of people who believe what you believe.” believe, and not just a single candidate wanting to bend the existing rules.

Mr. West, for his part, gained access to the ballot in some states through pre-existing minor parties, some of which already have guaranteed lines on the ballot. In Oregon, his name will appear as the Progressive Party candidate; in South Carolina, it is the United Citizens Party; in Alaska, he has the Aurora Party line. Mr. West is listed on the Utah ballot as an independent.

“I'm not yet aware of any hostile attitude from the DNC toward us,” said Edwin DeJesus, Mr. West's campaign manager. director for access to the ballot. “They're probably going to bring out the spoiler narrative as the election approaches. »

Before becoming an independent, Mr. West was initially a candidate for the Green Party, which will nominate its candidate at a virtual convention in July. Ms. Stein is seeking the nomination again.

A Green Party representative, Gloria Mattera, said her party was on the ballot in 20 United States and the District of Columbia, with petitions and litigation pending in others.

In February, the Green Party was deemed eligible for ballot in Wisconsina state where Ms. Stein won by more than 31,000 votes in 2016. That's more than the vote difference between Ms. Clinton and Mr. Trump, who won the state.

Ms. Mattera and other third-party leaders and candidates, including Mr. Nader, dispute arguments that outsider candidates are siphoning votes from Democrats, saying many people who prefer independent or alternative candidates simply would not vote s 'They didn't have that option. .

They see it as a question of choice.

“Our people will not support the outgoing president,” Mr. DeJesus said. “Biden was never going to win these votes. We give people a reason to go to the polls.

Ruth Igielnik, Alyce McFadden and Taylor Robinson contributed reporting.

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