In Norman v. Reed, 502 U.S. 279 (1992), the Supreme Court struck down an Illinois law that required a minor political party to obtain 25,000 signatures to appear on the ballot for the first time, finding it in violation of the First Amendment right of association. This case eased the burden for new or minor parties seeking to appear on the ballot.

At issue was an Illinois statute that mandated that new third-party candidates for statewide office had to secure 25,000 signatures and meet other procedural hurdles not required of candidates of established parties. More important, the law stipulated that in cases in which a subdivision has separate districts from which some of its officers are elected, party organizers seeking to fill such offices must collect 25,000 signatures from each district. In addition, a new political party becomes an “established political party” only after it received 5 percent of the vote in the next election, but a party that has not engaged in a statewide election can become “established” only in a subdivision where it has fielded candidates.

The case grew out of efforts by the Harold Washington Party (named after Chicago’s first African American mayor, Harold Washington) to gain ballot access in Cook County (Chicago), Illinois. Before the 1990 elections, members of the party presented the county with a petition containing 44,000 signatures from the city district and 7,800 signatures from the suburban district and a slate of candidates for both at-large and district-specific seats. They were denied ballot access and eventually appealed their case to the Supreme Court.

Prior to Norman v. Reed, in Munro v. Socialist Workers Party (1986) the Supreme Court had upheld a Washington state law that required minor-party candidates for partisan office to receive at least 1 percent of the votes cast in the primary before appearing on the general election ballot. The Court rejected claims that the 1 percent threshold to appear on the general ballot was burdensome to First Amendment association rights. It ruled instead that if the purpose of a primary was to narrow the political field by a demonstration of political support, then the 1 percent threshold was reasonable. Norman v. Reed follows Munro.

The Court struck down the Illinois law as burdensome on the First Amendment association rights of the Harold Washington Party. Writing for the majority, Justice David H. Souter said that although the state had an interest in requiring candidates and parties to demonstrate some public support, the First and Fourteenth Amendments protect the right of citizens to create and develop new political parties. A state may limit new parties’ access to the ballot only to the extent that a sufficiently weighty or compelling state interest justifies the restriction. Any severe restriction must be narrowly drawn to advance a state interest of compelling importance. In this case, the Court ruled that the 25,000-signature requirement, especially in the way that it may require this amount of signatures for each political subdivision, was not the least restrictive way for Illinois to secure its compelling objective of regulating ballot access and ensuring that a party had sufficient public support. Moreover, the requirement was overly burdensome to the First Amendment rights of the voters and party members who wished to create new political parties.

In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia upheld the law and would have given significant deference to the “State of Illinois’s arrangement of its elections” to prevent the “dangers of factionalism” that might threaten Cook County or Illinois should numerous political parties form. Overall, Norman v. Reed is a significant First Amendment case affirming the associational rights of third parties seeking to organ- ize and appear on the ballot.

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