This story has been updated with a clearer explanation of how Better for America affiliates access state ballots.
Launched only after Donald Trump began winning primaries, Better for America did not even play in as many states as 2012's star-crossed (but well-funded) Americans Elect. But while Americans Elect never found a candidate, Better for America seemed primed for one: Evan McMullin, the former House Republican policy aide now running to give anti-Trump voters a choice.
As The Washington Post's Josh Rogin first reported, McMullin was nudged into the race after Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) passed on a bid. Kinzinger introduced McMullin to Bill Kristol, who introduced him to John Kingston, who had founded Better for America. It wasn't the only connection McMullin made, but it suggested that ballot access might not be as big a hurdle as it seemed.
Better for America, bowing to complicated campaign law, was never able to coordinate ballot access. In its wake, it left a small number of state "Better for America" parties, with far less ballot access than Americans Elect achieved in 2012. In the BFA network's current state, McMullin's hurdles are towering, and vaulting over them will require a mixture of legal luck, third-party goodwill or a sudden surge of support. As of Tuesday afternoon, he had made the ballot in five states: Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana and Utah. Each success earned McMullin national headlines; in Arkansas, a Better for America affiliate managed to put him on the ballot.
They obscured a running debacle for his campaign. As of Tuesday, McMcMullin had missed the deadlines for ballot access in Alabama, Alaska, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia. Combined, those states offer 384 electoral votes, meaning that McMullin is at the moment mathematically eliminated from any shot at the presidency.
His team did not see it that way. "We have not exhausted all of our ballot access methodologies yet," McMullin strategist Rick Wilson said in a short interview. "We're suing in Texas, and we’re told by legal experts that legal victory in one state could have effects in other states."
Wilson was referring to the case against the Lone Star State's uniquely onerous ballot rules, which require independent candidates to hand in tens of thousands of signatures by early May — and disallow any signatures from people who voted in party primaries. But McMullin was hoping for better luck than Ralph Nader, who sued the state over those requirements in 2004 and lost. A district court judge ruled that the ballot requirement was not too onerous, based on a misreading of the law. McMullin, who began his legal challenge months later than Nader, is left hoping for a more careful and generous judge.
The other "ballot access methodology" available to McMullin is support from minor parties that already have ballot access, or organizations, in states. "They're coming out of the woodwork," Wilson said. Obscure parties like Hawaii's American Shopping Party and Florida's Independent Party have time to dump their candidates and give their nominations to McMullin. In one state, Minnesota, that's already happened — the Independence Party, which grew out of the old Reform Party, is petitioning for McMullin.
But a memo from the McMullin campaign, first reported by ABC News and then analyzed by Richard Winger, suggests that very few states can bail the campaign out. While the campaign suggested access was winnable in Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Minnesota, New York, Oregon and South Carolina, the third parties in Delaware and New York have endorsed Trump for president. If he does not win any ballot access lawsuits, McMullin may climb back on in just three of the states where he has missed the independent deadline: Florida, Hawaii and South Carolina. If successful, and if put on the ballot in every outstanding state, McMullin would be in competition for just 190 electoral votes, eighty short of what it would take to win the presidency.