RFK Jr. revs up ballot access campaign in response to sped-up debate criteria

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s first reaction to this week’s debate agreement between President Joe Biden, former President Donald Trump and CNN was to accuse them of “colluding” against him. But within hours, the independent presidential candidate changed his tune: He was going to try to win a one-month sprint to meet CNN’s criteria and crash the stage.

The question is whether both Kennedy’s ballot-access machine and the state government offices that will process his petition signatures are capable of moving quickly enough to get him on enough state ballots by mid-June to meet the debate criteria — and what exactly the cable network’s criteria, which have been used for autumn presidential debates for decades, mean in a different context at the beginning of summer.

Kennedy’s campaign has long aimed to get on the ballot in all 50 states before Election Day, but the debate accelerated its timeline because one of the criteria for participation is being “on a sufficient number of state ballots to reach the 270 electoral vote threshold to win the presidency prior to the eligibility deadline” a week before the debate.

Kennedy’s campaign said the candidate and his team had a call scheduled with CNN Friday afternoon regarding the June 27 debate in Atlanta. The campaign did not answer additional questions Friday about what happened during that call. But in the meantime, it is pushing forward its plans to qualify for state general election ballots, gathering and turning in petition signatures earlier than initially expected.

A fresh cash infusion is backing the effort. Nicole Shanahan, Kennedy’s running mate, announced during a campaign event in Nashville on Wednesday that she would be donating an additional $8 million to the campaign, which would meet its ballot access budget. As a candidate on the ticket, she can contribute unlimited amounts of her own money to the campaign.

Biden and Trump have already agreed to participate in CNN’s debate, sidestepping the traditional Commission on Presidential Debates but using criteria very similar to what the nonpartisan commission has used. A key difference: The commission’s debates always took place in the fall, when general election ballots were set and ready to go before voters.

This time, Kennedy is still in the middle of his ballot-access efforts, managing state deadlines scattered throughout the summer. Even Biden and Trump won’t have formally secured their party nominations and ballot positions at the conventions by June 27, though both are presumptive nominees after easing through the 2024 primaries. Kennedy campaign director Amaryllis Fox Kennedy noted the convention timing in a social media post Friday night.

Frank Fahrenkopf, co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, said in a Friday interview with Politico that Kennedy might have grounds to sue CNN over its debate criteria, though he also noted that the commission regularly faced lawsuits from third-party candidates over the years, which the candidates regularly lost. The criteria also included a polling element: at least 15% support in four qualifying national polls, with Kennedy already having hit that mark in two.

That makes ballot access the tougher hurdle for Kennedy. His uphill battle to get on 50 state ballots includes a variety of state deadlines for signature submissions and verification. While Kennedy’s campaign has been trumpeting its signature-gathering efforts in many states, it has been formally approved for the ballot in relatively few, and a sample of different state rules shows why simply speeding up signature-gathering might not cut it.

In the crucial swing state of Arizona, for example, the filing window for independent candidates to turn in petition signatures for ballot access doesn’t even start until July 28, the secretary of state’s office said. That’s more than a month after the CNN presidential debate.

Other states have similar rules, including New Hampshire, where the campaign cannot submit signatures until early through mid-June. It’s unclear how many states have such rules, but even in ones that don’t, getting on the ballot is more complicated than just turning in the minimum number of signatures required.

In Texas, Kennedy said Monday, his campaign has gathered and submitted enough signatures to qualify for the ballot there. But he’s not officially on yet: The Texas secretary of state’s office told NBC News that the signatures are still in the verification process, with no estimate on how long it will take.

As Kennedy turns in signatures to get on state ballots, he can also expect to face potential challenges to those signatures, which could delay officially getting on the ballot. It’s a relatively common process — but the time constraint of the June debate adds a new element of urgency to it. In Michigan on Friday, for example, state and national Democratic Party groups asked election officials to investigate allegedly fraudulent signatures on Republican candidate petitions.

Kennedy is currently on the ballot in six states, including electoral vote-rich California and battleground Michigan, where he was nominated by third-party groups, taking the spot on the ballot of those already-established parties.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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