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Keep the Seat: Connecticut’s Incumbent Advantage

lawsuit against Governor Ned Lamont, Secretary of State Denise Merrill and the Democratic State Central Committee (DSCC) alleging that Connecticut’s ballot access laws are unconstitutional was recently dismissed by U.S. District Judge Janet C. Hall.

Although Judge Hall found that the requirements to get on the primary ballot are significantly burdensome, they didn’t rise to the level of a “severe burden” that would render the laws unconstitutional, according to the summary judgment.

However, a report prepared by Plaintiff Andy Gottlieb found that Connecticut has some of the most restrictive ballot access laws in the country.

The report, which was ultimately excluded by Judge Hall due to the Court finding that Gottlieb was not an expert on election law, found that Connecticut’s ballot access laws for district offices, such as state representative, state senator and U.S. representative, are the most stringent in the country. For offices elected statewide, like the governor and U.S. Senator, Connecticut ranks in the top three.

Gottlieb’s lawsuit was not the first time Connecticut’s ballot access laws have been challenged. In the 2003 case of Campbell v. Bysiewicz, U.S. District Judge Peter Dorsey struck down the previous state statutes writing that the framework, “appears to create a threshold which is more difficult to surmount than is reasonably necessary to achieve the legitimate purpose of screening out candidates with no real support.”

It was then up to the state legislature to craft the ballot access laws that exist today. But, despite the previous statutes being struck down and a new framework being built to make accessing the ballot more attainable, primary competitiveness has remained just as low as it was before the landmark decision in Campbell v. Bysiewicz, according to data in the report.

In Connecticut, those seeking to get on the ballot to be a political party’s nominee for office must receive a minimum of 15 percent of the party’s delegate votes. Short of that, a candidate must petition their way onto the ballot by way of gathering signatures.

Candidates petitioning for state representative and state senator must obtain the signature of five percent of all registered members of their party in 14 days, while petitioning candidates for U.S. representative, U.S. senator and governor must obtain the signature of two percent of all registered voters in their constituency within 42 days.


For the office of state senator, a candidate would have to obtain signatures at a rate of 81 signatures a day, or roughly 0.36 percent of eligible signers per day. Compared to every other state that allows petitioning to get onto the ballot those figures are extreme. For context, it takes more signatures per day to run for the average state senate seat in Connecticut than it does to run for any U.S. House seat in the country, according to the report.

Connecticut doesn’t fare any better in the statewide races for the offices of governor and U.S. senator. While New York requires more signatures per day than Connecticut, when adjusted for population, Connecticut retakes the top spot. However, Massachusetts requires petitioning candidates to then get 15 percent of the delegate vote after obtaining signatures to get on the primary ballot. This additional step makes Massachusetts the most restrictive in practice.

According to the report, of the 35 states that use petitioning as an avenue to get on a primary ballot, the timeframes that candidates in Connecticut have to work with are an outlier compared to the rest of the country. Thirty-three of those states have longer deadlines than Connecticut’s 14 and 42-day limits. Many of those states allow months or years to collect the requisite number of signatures.

The only state with a shorter time frame than Connecticut’s 14 days for state senate and state representative is Rhode Island with 10 days to gather signatures. However, Rhode Island only requires 100 signatures in that time frame, while Connecticut requires 1,134 signatures.

The significant burden that Connecticut’s ballot access laws place on candidates is reflected in the competitiveness of its primaries. According to the report, Connecticut consistently ranks at or near the bottom of primary competitiveness in the country.


In 2020, Connecticut held primaries for only 4.2 percent of the available offices, ranking last in the nation. That same year the national primary rate was 20.4 percent.

In 2018 and 2016, Connecticut was third-to-last and last, respectively, in regards to primary competitiveness. In 2014, Connecticut was second-to-last.

While it is true that, generally, all incumbents enjoy an advantage over challengers, Connecticut ballot access laws appear to dissuade potential candidates from even trying to overcome the odds. According to the report, while 23 percent of all incumbents nationwide faced a primary, less than three percent of incumbents in Connecticut did.

What’s more, Connecticut holds the distinction of being the only state in the country where no incumbent U.S. House member has ever faced a primary. While Muad Herzi is collecting signatures to get on the ballot and challenge U.S. Representative John Larson, who is seeking his 13th term, Herzi faces the task of collecting 3833 signatures to get on the ballot. The signatures then need to be verified and still be valid by the end of the signature collecting window.


Also in the report is a comparison between the rates of primary competitiveness in the pre and post-Campbell v. Bysiewicz eras. In the nine election cycles before the Campbell decision, the average rate of primaries was 5.9 percent. Since Judge Dorsey struck down the previous statutes and tasked the state legislature with creating new laws, the average rate of primaries has been 5.2 percent.

Ironically, only one person has been able to access the primary ballot against an incumbent in any statewide office in the 20 years since Campbell v. Bysiewicz — Ned Lamont when he ran against U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman. Lamont accessed the ballot by way of convention delegates in 2006 and primaried Lieberman. Lamont would then go on to lose in the general election to Lieberman.

Alex Taubes, the attorney who represented Gottlieb in his lawsuit and is also his campaign’s Treasurer, said the lack of competitiveness in state primaries was the main crux of the lawsuit.

“The State’s defense and the [DSCC’s] defense is, ‘show us who is trying to get on the ballot and not making it, and we’ll show you why they didn’t make it; they didn’t have enough support,’” Taubes said. “But it kind of misses the whole point of the case because the whole point is that people are not trying to get on the ballot at all because it’s too difficult to even try.”

“We never said it’s impossible to get on the ballot,” Taubes added. “It’s still possible. It’s just you need to have the resources and for many people, that’s prohibitive, and especially for people who don’t have political connections or means, it’s very, very difficult.”

As previously noted, in 2003, Judge Peter Dorsey struck down the state statutes for ballot access as unconstitutional and left it up to the state legislature to rewrite the law. It was then-Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz and then-Attorney General Richard Blumenthal who took charge of crafting the bill.

When the bill was introduced before the General Assembly, the petitioning requirements stipulated that candidates must collect two percent of party members within three months for state and federal candidates. For all state legislative candidates, the five percent within 14 days standard was set.

Although the committee heard testimony from several witnesses saying that the five percent in 14 days requirement was overly burdensome, with Bysiewicz herself acknowledging that she had received comments urging that candidates be allowed more time, the General Assembly actually made the requirements more burdensome. The five percent in 14 days requirement remained, but the three-month deadline for candidates to collect two percent of party members was cut to 42 days.

Gottlieb, for his part, was not seeking to reduce the number of signatures required to get on the ballot, he merely wanted more time to obtain them.

“If the state is serious in its claim that candidates must demonstrate a significant modicum of support, why disallow the ability to demonstrate that by imposing such a late start date,” Gottlieb questions in the conclusion of his report.

Gottlieb also implied that increasing the timeframe would allow candidates to have more meaningful interactions with voters than the current time restriction allows.

“I’m more than happy to talk to as many voters as it takes,” Gottlieb wrote. “I’d even prefer to have longer and more substantive conversations with potential constituents, instead of having to rush off to get my next signature.”

Gottlieb, a 28-year-old progressive Democrat, announced his candidacy for Connecticut’s 98th House District late in January of this year. Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford, secured his nomination to run for State Comptroller during the 2022 Democratic Convention, leaving his House seat open.

Paul Herrnson, a Political Science Professor at the University of Connecticut who studies political parties and elections, said that while he thinks Gottlieb has legitimate concerns about getting on a party primary ballot, traditionally primaries serve a purpose beyond sifting out candidates with no real support.

“If you weaken requirements to the point where anyone can run, you make it possible for people that do not support American values, do not have political experience, or are not committed to playing by the rules,” Herrnson said. “You make it easier for them, but you also make it harder for someone to emerge that is a strong supporter of the party values and has a stronger chance of winning [in the general election]”

There is at least one workaround that has gained some popularity: The state of Alaska, as well as some major cities like New York City, San Francisco and Cambridge, MA have done away with the traditional voting format in favor of Ranked-Choice Voting (RCV).

Alaska also enacted nonpartisan primaries where, instead of parties holding separate primaries, all candidates compete in a single primary where all voters, regardless of party affiliation, can vote for their preferred candidate. The top four candidates from the primary then go on to compete in the general election where voters have the option to rank candidates in order of their preference: first, second, third, etc.

According to FairVote, a nonprofit organization that focuses on electoral reforms, RCV mitigates the problems that come with a crowded ballot and vote-splitting concerns.

“Voters can rank as many candidates as they want, without fear that ranking others will hurt the chances of their favorite candidate,” according to FairVote.

If a candidate wins more than 50 percent of the first-choice votes, then that candidate wins. If there is no majority winner after the first-choice votes are counted, then the race is decided by an “instant runoff”. In an instant runoff, the candidate with the least amount of votes is eliminated, and those who had that candidate ranked as their first choice will have their vote counted towards their next choice. That process continues until a candidate wins 50 percent of the votes.

RCV has been criticized for being complicated and confusing for those who are unfamiliar with the system. New City York Mayor Eric Adams recently said that without a significant campaign to educate voters on how RCV works, the system would disenfranchise Black, Hispanic and other groups of minority voters.

No matter the method of resolving these issues, Taubes believes that something must change because the lack of competitiveness in elections is a detriment to everyone in Connecticut.

“People in power are very aware that this is the hardest place in the country to get on the ballot, and they have a huge amount of support within the traditional system to prevent people from getting on the ballot to challenge them,” Taubes said. “So it results in less accountability, less progress, less justice, less everything that people want to see in government, you get less because we don’t have competition that could enliven a system.”

The DSCC did not respond to requests for comment.

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Tom Hopkins

A national, award-winning journalist from Bristol, Tom has a passion for writing. Prior to joining CII, he worked in print, television, and as a freelance journalist. He has taken deep dives into sexual assault allegations by Connecticut professors, uncovered issues at state-run prisons, and covered evictions in the New Britain Herald. He chose to focus on issues based in Connecticut because this is his home, and this is where he wants his work to make the greatest impact.

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