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Robert F. Kennedy Jr. wants to get on the ballot in all 50 states. It won't be easy

Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks during a campaign rally in Phoenix on Dec. 20, 2023. Both Kennedy's campaign and a super PAC supporting him are working to get the conspiracy theorist on state ballots around the country.
Rebecca Noble
Getty Images
Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks during a campaign rally in Phoenix on Dec. 20, 2023. Both Kennedy's campaign and a super PAC supporting him are working to get the conspiracy theorist on state ballots around the country.

With many Americans unhappy at the prospect of a rematch between President Biden and former President Donald Trump, voters may be more open than usual to third-party and independent candidates come fall.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. — who has a famous political last name and is a longtime leader of the anti-vaccine movement and a promoter of various conspiracy theories — is among the candidates hoping to appeal to voters looking for alternatives to Biden and Trump.

The effect Kennedy's independent candidacy could have on the general election remains an open question. Both Republican andDemocratic leaders have called Kennedy's presidential run a potential spoiler campaign.

But first, he actually needs to get on ballots, a complicated and expensive state-by-state undertaking.

"I think it's sometimes overlooked the number of things you need," said Michael Arno, who runs a petition signature gathering company and has worked on ballot access for various independent candidates and the No Labels effort. "If you're going to run against the two major political parties, you have to operate like you're one of the two major political parties."

Millions of dollars for signature gathering

Amaryllis Kennedy, the campaign's director and the candidate's daughter in-law, told NPR that despite the support polls say he has, "he cannot win unless he is on the ballot."

"And unlike President Biden and former President Trump, he still has to collect over a million signatures despite all of that support in order to be on the ballot," she said. "So, it's a large part of our focus right now."

So far, the campaign reports to have enough signatures to appear on the presidential ballot in Hawaii, Nevada, New Hampshire and Utah. A super PAC supporting Kennedy has claimed to secure enough signatures for Kennedy to appear on the ballot in Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina and Michigan.

Thecampaign has said it estimates it will take about $15 million to obtain the roughly 1 million signatures needed to appear on ballots in all 50 states.

Because campaigns generally can't gather enough signatures with volunteers alone, they often hire signature gatherers to meet state-set deadlines. And the price of signature gatherershas been climbing in recent years.

"You have got to pay for signature collectors," Arno said. "And you may well have a great volunteer network, but you're going to have to have paid signature gatherers."

But Amaryllis Kennedy said the campaign is hoping to mostly rely on its network of volunteers.

"We are building some really groundbreaking digital tools to harness hundreds of thousands of volunteers and supporters and encourage each of them to go out and collect 10 or 12 or 16 signatures," she said.

Kennedy said the campaign does have some paid signature gatherers on staff for backup, as well as trainers for volunteers. She said the campaign wants to lean on paid gatherers as little as possible though.

"Our hope is that we won't need as many paid petitioners as we had expected," she said.

Get ready for lawsuits

Another big expense for independent campaigns trying to get on the ballot is legal fees.

These candidates often challenge state ballot access laws — as well as deal with lawsuits filed by the country's major political parties.

"So you've got to have several lawyers on retainer," Arno said. "The more the better, to be honest."

Richard Winger, a ballot access expert who publishes a monthly newsletter called Ballot Access News, said it's almost impossible to avoid lawsuits in this process.

"Even going back 100 years, nobody who got on the ballot in all the states ever did it without suing, except only one," Winger said. "In 1992, Ross Perot got himself on the ballot without a single lawsuit. But he's the only one."

The Kennedy campaign has already suedUtah and Idaho over their ballot access rules. At least one of those cases has been successful, so far.

The campaign's director said they are even factoring in lawsuits in deciding when to turn in petitions. Kennedy said they are "holding the signatures until the 11th hour," as a way to work around "challenge deadlines" in some states.

"The earlier you submit the signatures, the longer anybody who wants to pose a nuisance challenge is to drain your coffers with court expenses," she said.

A view of a Kennedy 2024 board, sticker and button during a campaign rally in Phoenix on Dec. 20, 2023.
Rebecca Noble / Getty Images
Getty Images
A view of a Kennedy 2024 board, sticker and button during a campaign rally in Phoenix on Dec. 20, 2023.

Different states, different rules

Different states also have significantly different rules for getting on the ballot as an independent. Some states have high signature quotas and shorter timelines, which make getting on the ballot substantially more difficult.

But Winger thinks the difficulty of navigating state laws often gets overblown.

"The ballot access laws for president are much more lenient than they are for other offices," he said. "That's because state legislators really don't care that much who gets on the ballot for president. But they care intensely about who gets on the ballot for legislature. Ballot access for other offices is terrible. But for president, only six states are really monstrously hard."

Winger said those states are California, Texas, Florida, New York, Indiana and Arizona.

Arno sees ballot access rules for presidential candidates as a bit more challenging.

"Some of them are very easy," he said. "Some of them are more complex — or some of them are just downright created to make it almost impossible to get on the ballot."

Some states require signature gatherers to be registered voters in that state, which can be tricky for campaigns using a ballot petition company. Most paid signature gatherers work across the country and often aren't from the state they are working in.

Certain populous states have high signature thresholds.California, for example, requires independent candidates to gather 219,403 signatures by August, which is around the time most states have their signature gathering deadlines.

And some states have their deadlines even sooner. In Texas, independent candidates have from March 5 to May 13 to gather "113,151 signatures of registered voters who did not vote in the presidential primary of either party."

As a way to work around some tougher requirements for independent candidates, Kennedy is planning to run as a candidate from his own minor party in California, Texas and elsewhere.

Kennedy's campaign manager said some of the rules feel like unnecessary hurdles.

"Every state has different technical requirements, you know, paper size, whether or not it needs to be notarized, pen color, whether or not they have to be printed on the front and the back," she said. "And all of those technical requirements are reasons that you can discount thousands of voter signatures even once you do collect them."

Kennedy said she believes the purpose of all these rules is "to drain independent candidates of funds that they could otherwise be using to share their message" with voters.

"And I think that has a really chilling and damaging effect on our democracy," she said.

Big help from a super PAC. Is it legal?

The campaign, however, is getting quite a bit of help navigating all these requirements. An outside super PAC — which can raise unlimited sums of money — is supporting Kennedy's ballot access effort.

American Values 2024 has committed to getting Kennedy on the ballot in more than 10 states, including Texas and New York.

Tony Lyons — the super PAC's co-founder and president of Skyhorse Publishing, a small publisherknown for giving book deals to authors like conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, as well as RFK Jr. — told NPR that getting Kennedy on the ballot is a "precondition to any other work" that his super PAC wants to do.

"We've raised somewhere in the $25 to $30 million range and we have allocated up to $15 million to get Bobby Kennedy on the ballot in 12 states," Lyons said. He said about $9 million or $10 million will be spent on paid signature gatherers — and the rest of $5 million to $6 million set aside for legal challenges.

Already, there's acomplaint from the Democratic National Committee challenging the very fact that a super PAC is helping Kennedy get on the ballot. In their complaint to the Federal Election Commission, DNC officials said the campaign and super PAC are violating federal campaign finance laws because this kind of work amounts to illegal coordination.

Lyons said the FEC complaint is a "political game" aimed at hurting both the super PAC and the campaign. He said Democrats are also going to use super PAC money to influence the election.

"They've gotten something like 15 times the amount of money in their super PACs than all the super PACs that support Bobby Kennedy combined have raised," Lyons said.

But Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice and professor at Stetson University College of Law, said she thinks this complaint has some merit.

"The problem with a super PAC helping a candidate obtain ballot access is almost by definition, you would have to be coordinating between the candidate and the super PAC, which is not allowed," she said. "And what I mean by that is most of the states, when they require signature gathering, they are requiring the candidate to have gathered those signatures."

The FEC has a poor enforcement history, however. It has three Democratic appointees and three Republican appointees, and, Torres-Spelliscy said, they need four commissioners for the FEC "to do almost anything." She said this is why often the FEC just deadlocks 3-3.

"So you have political actors who know this," Torres-Spelliscy said. "And while a functioning FEC probably should be policing this line of true independence for super PACs, they have not had a good history of this in the last 14 years.

"It's always hard to know what the next round of thwarting the campaign finance system is going to look like."

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Ashley Lopez
Ashley Lopez is a political correspondent for NPR based in Austin, Texas. She joined NPR in May 2022. Prior to NPR, Lopez spent more than six years as a health care and politics reporter for KUT, Austin's public radio station. Before that, she was a political reporter for NPR Member stations in Florida and Kentucky. Lopez is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Miami, Florida.