by Lowman S. Henry | August 06, 2008

State laws governing ballot access are scandalous

A subplot to the Bonusgate scandal is the ongoing drama of what state Democrats did to prevent Ralph Nader and his Green Party from gaining a spot on the 2004 Presidential Election ballot. Attorney General Tom Corbett’s investigation has uncovered a systemic effort by House Democratic employees to frustrate Nader’s ballot drive – all allegedly at taxpayer expense.

Keeping Nader off the ballot was a top priority for state Democrats in 2004. President Bush and the Democratic Party nominee U.S. Senator John Kerry were running neck-and-neck in the polls. Nader posed a threat to Kerry by virtue of his appeal to ultra-left wing Democrats who might have voted in sufficient numbers for Nader to deny Kerry a win in Pennsylvania.

House Democratic staffers are alleged to have submitted fraudulent petitions on Nader’s behalf – petitions ultimately challenged in court and tossed from consideration. They also stand accused of working on taxpayer time to comb through Nader’s petitions finding signatures which could be disqualified by the courts. Democrats succeeded both in keeping Nader off the ballot and in winning the state for Kerry.

This raises anew the issue of the degree of difficulty alternate political parties have in gaining ballot access in Pennsylvania. Republicans and Democrats have automatic ballot access through the traditional petitioning process and a permanent “line” on the ballot. A relatively small number of signatures on nomination petitions will get a candidate’s name on the Republican or Democrat primary ballot with the winner automatically carried forward to the General Election ballot.

Other parties, and independent candidates, must petition for each individual candidate, from dog catcher to President, to be placed on the ballot. The number of signatures required is intentionally designed to make it difficult, if not impossible, for minor party candidates to be listed.

Current law requires minor party and independent candidates to gather signatures in the amount of 2% of the highest vote getter in the most recent General Election. In the case of statewide candidates, tens of thousands of signatures are required. The signature requirements require a high degree of organization to gather, something most minor party candidates lack. Nader though, has apparently secured enough signatures to appear on this November’s Presidential ballot.

In 2006 the situation was compounded by a quirk in the election calendar. There were no statewide elections on the ballot in 2005 (except for judicial retention elections which do not count), so the signature requirements ended up being calculated on the higher turn-out 2004 elections in which Robert P. Casey, Jr. racked up 3.3 million votes for State Treasurer. That meant minor party and independent candidates had to secure some 67,000 signatures to gain ballot access in 2006 – a feat nobody was able to accomplish. Thus, minor party and independent candidates were effectively shut out of the statewide electoral process in 2006.

Democrats and Republicans in Harrisburg have, for all practical purposes, merged into one party – the incumbent party – and find it in their mutual best interest to prevent others from competing in General Elections. The Democrats fear left-leaning parties such as the Green Party, and Republicans quake at the thought of the Libertarian and Constitutional parties on the right.

This is because the presence of such alternatives on the ballot serves to underscore the degree to which both Republicans and Democrats have all too often abandoned the core principals of their parties in their efforts to hold office and cling to the political power it brings.

I am not a fan of Ralph Nader’s, but he was clearly wronged in 2004. The deck was stacked against him from the beginning, and it now appears as though tax dollars were used to ensure that he never even got into the game. Nader is now suing for compensation for his legal costs, something those who denied him his rights should be required by the courts to pay.

But more needs to be done. State Senator Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon) has the answer. Senator Folmer has introduced the Voters’ Choice Act which would do away with the current formula setting signature requirements for minor party and independent candidates and replace that formula with a set number of signatures equal to the number of signatures Republican and Democratic candidates must gather to get on the ballot. That would result in a level playing field.

It isn’t often the conservative Folmer and liberal Nader is going to find them in agreement on an issue, but this piece of legislation is unique. It is fundamentally an issue of fairness, and one of giving every Pennsylvanian and every potential candidate the right to be considered for public office. And that is something upon which those of all political persuasions can agree.