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In a representative democracy, the term paper candidate is often given to a candidate who stands for a political party in an electoral division where the party in question enjoys only low levels of support. Although the candidate has little chance of winning, a major party will normally make an effort to ensure it has its name on the ballot paper in every constituency. In two-party systems, a paper candidate may also be known as token opposition.
Paper candidates may be local party members or members from neighbouring areas (in jurisdictions where this is allowed), or sometimes members from central office. The main purpose of fielding paper candidates is to maintain or improve the profile of a political party and, in two-party systems, to provide at least nominal opposition to a seemingly unassailable incumbent. Another potential use for paper candidacy is to allow a candidate who wants off the ballot of another race to do so by running for something else, a race they cannot possibly win (such as Rick Lazio, who lost a Republican primary for New York Governor in 2010 but still had a third-party ballot line; Lazio was nominated for a judicial seat in the Bronx that was so heavily Democratic that he could not have possibly won if he wanted to, and he did not). The paper candidates themselves typically do little or no campaigning and neither incur nor claim any expenses. There are circumstances where a paper candidate can win election, often when the opposing candidate is unexpectedly embroiled in scandal; for example, then-27-year-old American Chris Smith, who ran as a token opponent to New Jersey congressman Frank Thompson in 1978 and 1980, won the latter contest after Thompson was embroiled in the Abscam scandal.
In Britain paper candidates are commonly fielded in different locations by all the major parties in both Local and National Elections.
A dummy candidate is similar to a paper candidate in that both types do not intend to win their race; however, they differ in that a dummy candidate typically has an ulterior motive for being in the race, such as to dishonestly divert votes away from more legitimate candidates or to take advantage of benefits afforded political candidates.
In the United Kingdom, major parties often find it difficult to field a full list of candidates for all council seats up for election, especially in the case of councils with "all-up" elections. Parties find it desirable to persuade people to stand as paper candidates so that:
- Supporters have an opportunity to vote for the party
- The total vote obtained across the council and the nation is maximised
- All seats are contested so there is no risk that candidates from other parties can be declared elected unopposed
In Britain, being nominated as a local election candidate simply involves signing some forms, with no deposit required. A paper candidate will often do no campaigning at all and so be able to submit a zero return of election expenses, simplifying the paperwork for the election agent.
Some paper candidates stand in order to help their party but do not wish to be elected to the post in question. In fact, some paper candidates only agree to stand after receiving assurances that there is no "risk" of them getting elected.
In Canada, paper candidates may exist at both the federal and provincial / territorial levels. As in Great Britain, they most commonly exist to allow the main political parties to field candidates in as many constituencies as possible. At the federal level, some parties do this in order to receive a larger per-vote subsidy, paid regardless of the number of seats actually won.
Alternatively, paper candidates might be used if the party is not seriously contesting the election but must run candidates so it can either get registered or stay registered for some other purpose. An example of this scenario in action is found in Saskatchewan, where the "dormant" Progressive Conservatives continued to run at least ten candidates in the province's general elections until the relevant law was amended, to keep its registration with Elections Saskatchewan (and to avoid losing control of what is believed to be a substantial amount of money).
An extreme version of a paper candidate, is a "Name on Ballot", often referred to by the acronym "nob". Many NoBs will only put up campaign signs, and some do not even do that. In most cases, the only requirement is that the candidate show up at the returning officer's headquarters for a few moments to take an oath and pay the required nomination deposit. In Alberta candidates don't even need to show up to talk to a returning officer, as long as someone on behalf of the party drops off the requisite paperwork and funds.
In many smaller parties, such as the Prince Edward Island New Democrats, a majority of the party's candidates in any given election are NoBs. The term is often worn as a badge of pride in one's loyalty to the party. Island New Democrat, Dr. Bob Perry, who has been a NoB many times in the past, often calls himself "Dr. NoB" at election time.
Paper candidates ("poteau" in Canadian French), particularly of the name-on-ballot variety, can sometimes provide unwanted attention for the candidate's party, particularly if they become viable prospects for election. For example, in the 2011 federal election, a sudden increase in opinion-poll support, particularly in Quebec, for the New Democratic Party – which historically has had a minimal presence in that province – led to greater scrutiny of some of that party's lower-profile Quebec candidates — one of whom, Ruth Ellen Brosseau, won even though she had never been in her riding and spoke its dominant language poorly.
- Paybarah, Azi (September 28, 2010). Judge Lazio. WNYC. Retrieved May 18, 2014.
- Gruson, Lindsey. "Decade of Rep. Smith: Fluke to Tactician", The New York Times, August 10, 1991. Accessed March 28, 2008. "He switched parties but lost in 1978 as the token opposition to Frank Thompson, a veteran Democrat who was chairman of the House Administration Committee. But he won in 1980, when Mr. Thompson was convicted of bribery and conspiracy in the Abscam scandal and later served two years in prison."
- Grenier, Éric (23 January 2011). "Per-vote subsidy but a fraction of taxpayer support for political parties". The Globe and Mail. Retrieved 27 April 2011.
- "Ruth Ellen Brosseau: de "poteau" à députée". La Presse (in French). 4 May 2011. Retrieved 8 May 2012.
- Weisblott, Marc (4 May 2011). "Las Vegas-vacationing anglophone Quebec MP gets spoofed on Facebook page". Daily Brew (blog). Yahoo! News. Retrieved 8 May 2012. "But, in fact, they were a reference to Brosseau being a "poteau," or post, a Quebecois term for candidates who are on the ballot to represent a party with no expectation of victory."