RFK Jr. sues Nevada's top election official over ballot access as he scrambles to join debate stage

Robert F

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

RENO, Nev. (AP) — Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s campaign filed a lawsuit Friday against Nevada’s top election official, alleging a requirement that independent candidates must name their running mate by the time they start gathering signatures for ballot access is unconstitutional.

The filing in the U.S. District Court of Nevada comes just over two months after Nevada Secretary of State Cisco Aguilar's office clarified guidance that would likely nullify signatures that Kennedy Jr's campaign collected for November's ballot due to the petition not listing a running mate. Kennedy Jr's campaign said in the lawsuit that they received approval in January from Aguilar's office allowing them to collect the required 10,095 signatures for a petition that did not list his vice presidential selection.

The requirement to name a running mate on the petition, the campaign alleges, violates the 1st Amendment and the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

“The court must prohibit what was either rank incompetence or partisan political gamesmanship by the Secretary from invalidating petition signatures afforded the highest First Amendment protection by the United States Supreme Court,” said Paul Rossi, the campaign's senior counsel, in a Monday statement.

Kennedy Jr. picked California lawyer and philanthropist Nicole Shanahan as his running mate in late March, a few weeks after he submitted the petition.

Aguilar's office sent correct guidance to all independent candidates that had filed petitions for ballot access “well in advance of the deadline to submit signatures, which still has not passed,” the office said in a statement. The office acknowledged in March that an employee “provided inaccurate guidance to an independent presidential campaign” and clarified that independent candidates' petitions must list a running mate that month.

Candidates have until July 5 to submit a petition to county election offices with enough signatures to appear on the Nevada ballot.

“Nevada has a rich history of independent and third party candidates for office," Aguilar said in a statement. "Each of those candidates managed to attain ballot access by following the law. We look forward to seeing Mr. Kennedy’s team in court.”

The lawsuit comes as Kennedy Jr. scrambles to secure ballot access in states with at least 270 electoral votes by June 20, a requirement to get on the stage for a CNN debate with President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump. Nevada’s six electoral votes would get him closer, though he’s still dozens short.

The debate is central to Kennedy’s strategy, allowing him to stand alongside his better-known rivals to overcome his severe financial deficit and send the message that he is a viable candidate.

Supporters of Biden and Trump have mobilized against Kennedy, both fearing his idiosyncratic views and famous last name will tip the scales away from their preferred victor. It’s difficult to know how Kennedy will affect the race because polling on third-party candidates is notoriously unreliable this far out from an election.

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Jonathan J. Cooper contributed reporting from Phoenix.