- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 28, 2015

July 28—A federal judge threw out provisions in Pennsylvania law Friday that he said are unfair to third-party political candidates wanting to get onto statewide ballots.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence Stengel, Philadelphia, ruled that Pennsylvania’s Election Code makes it unconstitutionally difficult for third-party candidates by requiring them to get more signatures than Democrats or Republicans and to defend the validity of those signatures in court, according to The Associated Press.

“The ability of the minor parties to organize and voice their views has been decimated” by those provisions, Stengel wrote in his ruling. Stengel said the “chilling effect” on third-party candidates seeking office has been “demonstrated by the disappearance of minor parties from the General Election ballot.” Last November, Pennsylvania was one of four states with no independent or third-party candidates on statewide ballots.

Shawn Felty, chairman of the Libertarian Party of Pennsylvania and Cressona councilman, applauded the ruling.

“We’re pleased that the court agreed with what the Libertarian Party of Pennsylvania has been saying for years: Pennsylvania’s ballot access laws unconstitutionally restrict voter choice by compelling third-party candidates to submit thousands — if not tens of thousands — more signatures than Democratic or Republican candidates and to defend those signatures at great cost in the court system,” Felty said in a statement released over the weekend. “Citizens of the commonwealth deserve choice at the ballot box, but it seems that the old parties will stop at nothing to prevent that from happening.”

Under current code, Pennsylvania requires independent candidates wanting to be on the ballot to collect enough signatures to match at least 2 percent of the votes cast for the top vote-getter in the last statewide election — a number that has been as high as 70,000, according to the AP. That means third-party candidates will need 16,639 signatures for the fall election.

Republicans and Democrats need 2,000 signatures for president, U.S. senator and governor and 1,000 for treasurer, auditor general and attorney general.

Pennsylvania is the only state that hears ballot challenges in court instead of being verified by an executive agency. Because there are more signature requirements for third-party candidates, they also have to pay higher legal fees.

Court costs for candidates to defend their signatures’ validity can add up to as much as $50,000 while they also may be ordered to cover the challenger’s legal costs, bringing total legal fees to more than $100,000.

Fines of $81,000 were ordered against 2004 independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader and about $80,000 against Carl Romanelli, a Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate in 2006.

“The restrictions placed on third party candidates is equivalent to a modern day poll tax,” Hillary Kane, secretary for the Green Party of Pennsylvania, said in a statement issued Monday. “Judge Stengel’s decision has made it clear that limiting access to the ballot is an unacceptable infringement on the citizen’s rights to self-determination and their ability to elect candidates that truly represent the citizen’s views and desire for change.”

Felty said that there is a clear path to restoring fairness to the election process in Pennsylvania with Senate Bill 495, also known as the Voters’ Choice Act. The proposed legislation would have third-party candidates collect the same number of signatures as the major party candidates.

“It will level the playing field for all political parties in the commonwealth. And it will allow voters to choose their elected officials from a field of more than two choices,” Felty said. “We call upon the state legislature to immediate adopt this bill and for Governor Wolf to sign it into law.”

Gov. Tom Wolf has not yet commented on the case or whether an appeal will be filed.

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(c)2015 Republican & Herald (Pottsville, Pa.)

Visit the Republican & Herald (Pottsville, Pa.) at republicanherald.com

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