By Adama Sirleaf
Pennsylvania’s ballot access process is one of the most hotly-contested in the country. On July 9, 2014, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Constitution, Green, and Libertarian Parties of Pennsylvania did have standing to bring a claim challenging Pennsylvania’s “method of checking ballot access petitions.” The plaintiffs challenged two provisions of Pennsylvania’s election code, Title 25 §§ 2911(b) and 2937 arguing that combined the two provisions are unconstitutional. The argument stems from the requirement of §2911(b) that minor parties and political organizations must obtain a certain number of signatures to get on the ballot. However, under §2937 if those signatures are successfully challenged the candidates may be held financially liable. Read together, these two provisions arguably act as a barrier for candidates of minor parties and political organizations. The appellate court merely ruled on standing and did not intend to prejudge the merits of the case.
Currently, pending before Third Circuit’s Eastern District Court of Pennsylvannia is the case of Green Party of Pennsylvania v Aichele, which challenges several other aspects of the Pennsylvania ballot petition process. The plaintiffs are challenging the “ban on out-of-state circulators, the restriction on signers living in different counties signing the same sheet, the restriction that only registered voters (as opposed to people eligible to register) may sign, and notarization of each sheet.”
These challenges beg the question: just how bad are Pennsylvania ballot access laws? In its 5 States with the Worst Ballot Access Laws, the Independent Voter Network (IVNIVN) did not list Pennsylvania as one of the five worst states. This might imply that Pennsylvania’s ballot access laws are not among the worst in the nation. However, according Ballot-Access.org “Pennsylvania, New Mexico, and Alabama are the only states that have had a Democratic-Republican ballot monopoly for both previous midterm years, 2006 and 2010, for all statewide office.”
For the 2014 midterm elections, only the two major parties had candidates on the ballot for the governor’s, state legislature’s, and US legislature’s races in Pennsylvannia. This is made possible by the fact that Pennsylvania statute allows private actors to object to political organizations’ nomination papers and permits Pennsylvania courts, as they see fit, to impose administrative and litigation costs on third parties if the challenge is successful. This potential liability has dissuaded many third party candidates from running in the last several election cycles. The additional cost requirement placed on third parties acts as a gatekeeper and an insurance of the two party status quo.
The state argues that this measure is beneficial to prevent ballot clutter, but the system is inherently weighted in favor of Republicans and Democrats. As the only two major parties, under Pennsylvania §2862, Republicans and Democrats may place candidates on the general election ballots through publicly funded primaries. Third parties and political organizations on the other hand must get a petition signed by 2% of the of the vote total of the winning candidate from the previous election. Adding canvasing costs, plus the cost of campaigning, plus the potential liability of a successful petition challenge, Pennsylvania makes it nearly impossible for less financially well-off candidates to get on the ballots.
The cost for a successful petition challenge can be astronomical. The litigation and administration cost may reach as high as $100,000. In 2004, a court ordered Ralph Nader’s campaign to pay more than $81,000; in 2006, the court ordered Carl Romanelli’s campaign to pay $80,000 after successful petition challenges. Adding to the cost is that each petition must be notarized, which requires a $5.00 notarization fee per petition sheet. Prior to the midterm election, cost estimates for third party petitions ran as high as $312,505.00.
Without addressing the technical aspects of getting a minor party or political organization’s candidate on the ballot, the Pennsylvania system is heavily skewed in favor of the two major parties. The law places a cost on other candidates that is not present for major parties’ candidates. Pennsylvania law effectively permits only those with money or strong financial support access to the ballot.