Third-party candidates struggle to overcome variety of political hurdles

Posted at 9:11 AM, Oct 24, 2014
and last updated 2014-10-24 09:35:12-04

RICHMOND, Va — While Virginia voters have become more aware of the Libertarian Party with last year’s surprising results for gubernatorial candidate Robert Sarvis, third-party candidates still encounter challenges in the elections this fall. For many, it starts with just getting on the ballot.

While Democratic and Republican candidates are automatically listed, third-party candidates must collect 1,000 signatures of registered Virginia voters in their district to earn a spot on the ballot.

Justin Upshaw, a Libertarian who wanted to be a candidate in Virginia’s 3rd congressional district, gathered more than the 1,000 signatures required, but more than half were counted as invalid when they were evaluated.

“Admittedly, it’s an adversarial system,” Upshaw, a former logistics specialist in the U.S. Army, said. “With my case, we turned in 1,560 signatures and only 680 were approved.”

The Virginia State Board of Elections reviews the signatures and compares them to voter registrations to verify their authenticity.

Upshaw got involved when a friend tagged him in a Facebook post by Sarvis, who was looking for candidates to run in the congressional races across Virginia to continue the momentum of the Libertarian Party after last year’s gubernatorial election. Upshaw’s friend encouraged him to enter the race. But even before running, Upshaw was thinking about the financial costs of campaigning.

“I went on Sarvis’ Facebook page and I made mention of, you know, if I was a little bit better connected, had a little bit more funding, then this is something I’d be interested in.”

Fundraising and financial support is a major barrier to third-party candidates. James Carr, the Libertarian candidate in the 7th congressional district, primarily uses social media and local events as free platforms to spread his message of changing the partisan gridlock.

“We couldn’t just spend tens of thousands of dollars, so we set a very, very tight budget, hundreds not thousands [of dollars],” Carr, who is running against Republican Dave Brat and Democrat Jack Trammell, said. “If you haven’t raised $50,000, they’re not going to let you come in and debate the other opponents that are on a specific ticket.”

Carr’s campaign has relied on small-dollar donations from many supporters in the district. He reached the $5,000 threshold required to report donations to the Federal Elections Commission in late September.

“To be a reportable donation it has to be over $200, and I’ve got a handful of those. Everything else has been $25 here, $10 there,” Carr, who works as a manager in healthcare finance and analytics, said. “I don’t have financial support in the role that most candidates would define it, but I have moral support.”

In addition to the difficulties of getting on the ballot and garnering the finances to run a campaign, third-party candidates are often also shut out of debates.

“There’s nothing that says candidates have to invite a third-party candidate to participate in a debate, and most of the time they’re not invited,” Dr. Alexandra Reckendorf, a VCU political science professor and an expert on third parties, said. She said that the major parties do not want to offer a platform to third-party candidates as they could pull voters from them.

Dr. James Lark, former national chairman of the Libertarian Party, said promoting familiarity with third parties is the first step to reaching voters.

“Many people didn’t know what the term ‘libertarian’ meant when I became involved back in the 1980s,” Lark said. “An important part of the process over the last several years has been simply to give people an un-caricatured view of what the word ‘libertarian’ means.”

He attributed the lack of awareness of third-party candidates to their continued losses.

“There are a lot of people who are self-identified Libertarians, but for various reasons including the difficulty of getting Libertarians on the ballot and into the debates … may choose to vote for one of the older parties, rather than to vote Libertarian,” Lark said.

When people vote for third parties, it strengthens the political system, Reckendorf said.

“The third parties teach the major parties that they can’t always take their constituents for granted,” Reckendorf said. “I think they play an incredibly important role in making sure that parties get held accountable when the people are kind of brave enough to go ahead and support those third parties.”

By Shakola Walker and Ali Mislowsky (Special to

This story was reported by the “iPadJournos” mobile and social media journalism project, a cooperation between and VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture.