Chickamauga native Angela Pence wants to represent the people of her Northwest Georgia community in Congress. The only thing standing between the Libertarian candidate and the 14th Congressional District seat is a $5,220 qualifying fee, 23,000 signatures – and Marjorie Taylor Greene.
But the district’s infamous, far-right Republican incumbent is the least of Pence’s concerns right now. As a third-party candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, she first needs to get on the ballot – and she faces the most restrictive ballot access law in the country.
No third-party candidate in Georgia has ever collected enough signatures to gain a spot on the ballot for a U.S. House race since 1943 when the Georgia legislature passed a law aimed at keeping Communists out of Congress.
According to the law, which the Libertarian Party of Georgia is suing to change, third-party candidates must collect signatures from fully 5% of their congressional district’s active voters. Any Democratic or Republican candidate, on the other hand, is automatically assured a spot on the ballot.
That means Pence needs to collect 23,000 signatures by July 12 to run as a Libertarian in the 14th District. Given the daunting hurdles, why is she doing it?
“There are things that I disagree with Marjorie on very vastly,” the 30–year-old Pence told Atlanta Civic Circle, particularly around social issues.
“I’m very passionate about criminal justice reform,” she said. “I’m also very passionate about just letting people live their life. And she’s made some incredibly disparaging remarks.”
“There is a real, large disconnect with understanding the fact that minorities are still very much oppressed in so many ways. And she just doesn’t get that, which is very concerning,” Pence added.
Pence, who has a small apothecary business in her hometown of Chickamauga, isn’t deterred. She thinks running as a Libertarian gives her a fighting chance against Greene because the 14th District has been receptive to Libertarian candidates.
“It’s pretty clear that people in this district are willing to listen to a third party,” Pence said. “In the 2016 [presidential] election, this district pulled the most Libertarian votes for Gary Johnson in the entire state.”
“There’s never been a Libertarian to run for Congress from the 14th District. I think I stand a better chance than a Democrat,” she added.
The district, created after the 2010 census, is a mostly white, rural, Republican stronghold in the northwest corner of Georgia. It includes the mountain counties of Walker, Whitfield, Chattooga, and Floyd – and extends south into Paulding and parts of Cobb.
The latest Republican-led redistricting, following the 2020 census, extends the 14th District’s reach further southeast into the bluer territory of greater metro Atlanta – widely considered a gambit to oust Greene.
The Libertarian Party is the only third party that’s consistently placed candidates on the Georgia ballot, both statewide and locally, over the years. It’s run a robust slate of statewide candidates since 1988–but even so, it hasn’t been able to crack the ballot for a U.S. House seat, because of the high number of signatures required for ballot access.
“There has never been a ballot access law in any state that’s as bad as Georgia’s law for minor-party and independent candidates,” Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News in San Francisco, told Atlanta Civic Circle.
But Pence thinks the 14th District could be particularly receptive to a Libertarian congressional candidate such as herself because the upcoming November election is “a very unique situation.”
“The GOP up here is very divided,” Pence said. Among the Republican base, she believes moderates make up the greatest percentage of voters, which could give her a viable shot against Greene.
”Of course, you have the far right that seems to kind of gravitate towards Majorie. They’re just louder, but they’re not the majority,” she said.
“And we’re seeing an even bigger divide among the Republicans after this weekend,” Pence added, referring to Greene’s appearance at the America First Political Action Conference in Orlando, organized by Nick Fuentes, a white nationalist.
“Everybody’s talking about it,” she said of the locals and elected officials in her Northwest Georgia enclave – and many are distancing themselves from the incumbent. Pence is hoping that she can pick up support from Republican groups that would ordinarily support Greene.
What’s more, two Libertarians – Johnson, who ran for president in 2016, and Shane Hazel, a U.S. Senate candidate in 2020 who’s now running for governor – both made their best showings in the 14th District in recent statewide elections.
Hazel won between 2% and 3% of the vote in the mountain district’s 12 counties against the Republican, David Perdue, and Jon Ossoff, the Democrat who beat him. Johnson similarly pulled 3% of the vote in the 14th District, and statewide, when he ran for president on the Libertarian ticket.
Still, it’s a crowded field. There are five Democratic contenders in the May 24 primary for the 14th District seat: Ronnie Baker, Lateefah Conner, Wendy Davis, Marcus Flowers, and Holly McCormack.
Greene will face Mark Clay, Eric Cunningham, Walter Haygood, Charles Lutin, and Jennifer Strahan in the Republican primary on the same day. If Pence succeeds in getting the requisite number of signatures, she’ll face the winners of the two primaries on November 8.
Pence predicts that Greene will succeed in fending off the Republican challengers and win the party’s primary, but she thinks moderate Republicans will then start looking for another option.
“Those moderate Republicans who don’t necessarily resonate with her will look at somebody like me, who is very middle-of-the-road, and say, ‘Well, we can get behind that,’” the Libertarian hopeful said.
Getting the signatures
But Pence has to get on the ballot first – and she’s only got until July 12 to submit the 23,000 signatures she needs in a nomination petition to the Georgia Secretary of State’s office, which then vets them.
The Libertarians nominated her for the U.S. House seat at their convention in January, as part of a slate of 14 candidates – 12 men and two women – for a range of offices, including the U.S. House and Senate, governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state and attorney general.
The Libertarian nominees for the statewide races will automatically appear on the general election ballot, but Pence still has to get the signatures, because no Libertarian has appeared on the ballot for the 14th District seat before.
She and her team of volunteers have only gathered about 700 so far, but she’s making it her mission to get on the ballot.
Pence said she’s been logging hundreds of hours and miles canvassing from the northwest corner of her district at the Tennessee border, down to the southeast corner in Cobb County’s Austell and Powder Springs. “It’s consuming my life,” she said. “Some days it’s like, ‘God, this mountain is insane.’ And then others, it’s like, ‘We’re putting in the work, and we’re going to do it.’”
Pence has the advantage of deep roots in the mostly mountain community, where she grew up. “People are excited to have another voice,” she said. “They think I should be able to be on the ballot. So that’s made my signature-gathering very easy.”
“I have people spread out all over the district, who are just working on connecting with businesses and going door to door,” Pence said, adding that local businesses have also agreed to collect signatures for her.
Pence’s quixotic quest for Congress couldn’t come at a more opportune time.
Support for third-party candidates like Pence is at an all-time high, according to a national February 2021 Gallup poll. A record 62% of respondents said a third party is needed – including 63% of Republicans.
Increasingly, Americans are walking away from the two-party system. As of January, 46% of Americans voters consider themselves independents, while only 28% identify as Democrats and 24% identify as Republicans, according to another Gallup poll.
While American voters may express an appetite for third-party and independent candidates, few have managed to get elected statewide or nationally – with the exception of two independents in the U.S. Senate, Bernie Sanders from Vermont and Angus King from Maine.
Third-party members of Congress are even rarer than independents. Currently, all 435 members of the U.S. House are either Democratic or Republican, after the sole Libertarian, Justin Amash from Michigan, lost his seat in 2021.
Georgia’s high barriers
Just how hard is it to get on the ballot in Georgia – for any statewide race – if you’re not a Democrat or Republican?
Remember Ralph Nader, the popular consumer advocate and perennial presidential candidate? Nader ran as a member of the Green Party, then the Reform Party, and finally as an independent. Even with a nationally-funded campaign, Georgia was one of only four states where he never gained ballot access.
Despite the obstacles in Georgia, a few third-party candidates recently have won local races, or even changed the outcome of national elections.
Hazel, the Libertarian candidate in the U.S. Senate election against Perdue and Ossoff, won 115,029, or 2.3%, of the votes, enough to prevent either of his opponents from gaining a clear majority – and forcing them into a runoff. Ossoff went on to win one of the two Georgia Senate seats that shifted the balance of political power in Congress to the Democrats.
In that same general election, independent candidate Keith Higgins became the district attorney for the Brunswick Judicial Circuit in Southeast Georgia after defeating the incumbent, Jackie Johnson, a Republican, who was under fire for her handling of several high-profile criminal cases, including Ahmaud Arbery’s murder.
To get on the ballot, Higgins collected 8,500 signatures, more than double the amount needed, and then won a convincing 52.8% of the vote. Johnson, who’d held the position for 10 years, now is facing misconduct charges arising from the Arbery case.
Meanwhile, Pence continues traveling Northeast Georgia and gathering signatures. Her campaign, she said, is starting to garner bipartisan support. “I’ve had several people from within both parties who have offered to help gather signatures. So it’s a very unique and interesting place to be.”
While Greene has some fervent supporters, she also faces enormous voter opposition, so if the incumbent Congress member is the Republican on the ballot, Pence reasons, voters may ask themselves: Why not vote Libertarian?
Pence believes she could win enough of the vote to at least force a runoff. ”The reality is, it’s very unlikely a Democrat will win here,” she said.
In any case, the outcome of November’s election is “going to be very interesting,” Pence said. “It’s going to change the dynamics of this district, just in regards to looking at third parties “