Decided: June 20, 2016

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling.

Robert Sarvis, a political figure in the Libertarian Party of Virginia, brought a constitutional challenge to Virginia’s three-tiered ballot ordering law. Sarvis attack focused chiefly upon the ballot ordering law found in Virginia Code § 24.2-613. That law describes the form of ballot to be used in Virginia elections. It provides that for elections in Virginia, a candidate shall be identified by the name of the candidate’s political party or by the term “Independent.” The statute also orders the ballot for elections to these offices in three tiers. The first tier includes candidates from political parties, which the Code defines as organizations of citizens that received at least 10 percent of the vote for any statewide office filled in either of two preceding statewide general elections. In addition to the 10 percent threshold, any organization seeking political party status must also have a state central committee and an elected state chairman present in Virginia for six months prior to any nominee from that organization filing for office. The second tier includes candidates from recognized political parties. A recognized political party under the Code must have a state central committee present in Virginia for the six months prior to any nominee from that party filing for office, and the state central committee must be comprised of voters residing in each Virginia congressional district. The organization must have a duly elected state chairman and secretary as well as a party plan and bylaws. The Libertarian Party of Virginia has been designated a recognized political party under the Code. The third tier of the ballot includes independent candidates not associated with political parties or recognized political parties. Virginia’s ballot ordering law also specifies how candidates are ordered within the three tiers. In the first two tiers, candidate order is set by lot. This order is used for each office on the ballot. The independent third tier is ordered by alphabetical surname. The district court found no merit in Sarvis’s arguments and dismissed the challenge for failure to state a claim under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). Sarvis appealed.

Sarvis’s main argument on appeal is that Virginia’s three tiered ballot ordering law advantages candidates from major parties and disadvantages candidates like him from minor parties. Sarvis contends this practice violates the First Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. The court looked at the burdens Virginia’s three-tiered ballot ordering law imposed and found them to be only modest on Sarvis’s free speech, associational, and equal protection rights. Neither the Libertarian Party nor any other party faced a disproportionate burden and the law was facially neutral and nondiscriminatory. The court found Sarvis’s argument on the difficulty for a party to reach the first tier to be exaggerated because the status is reached if any candidate for any office receives 10 percent of the vote in either of the two preceding statewide general elections. Even if the Libertarian Party cannot reach first tier status, the party and Sarvis can still appear on the ballot and has done so in the past. Virginia’s important regulatory interest by the ballot ordering law include assisting the voting process reduce voter confusion and preserving party-order symmetry across different offices on the ballot. The law also helps reduce multi-party factionalism and promote political stability. The court balanced Sarvis’s inconsequential burden with Virginia’s important objectives from to determine that there is no basis for finding the law unconstitutional. The court affirmed the district court’s dismissal for failure to state a claim.

Full Opinion

Ryan Jones

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