Voter Disenfranchisement, PA Style

by Kevin Murphy on September 21, 2006

(Ed note: As anger builds over the removal of the Bayview Redevelopment referendum from the San Francisco ballot, we thought our readers would appreciate hearing about similar ballot problems in the blue state of Pennsylvania. Murphy wrote this in response to our article criticizing the PA Greens for allowing right-wing Republicans to pay for their signature drive)

Ah, the West Coast lefties don’t know how good they have it. Admittedly, the PA Greens have problems — for the last couple years, the state leadership has been extremely lame, which is partly bad luck, and partly the result of the weak state of the party (reflective of all third parties) in the state. Pennsylvania’s laws and cultural gatekeepers are so hostile to third parties that it is very hard to build a third party’s numbers to a critical mass of viability. Philadelphia, and virtually all of Pennsylvania, is extremely low-brow. PA is famously “Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh, with Alabama in between.” And that aphorism probably awards Philadelphia and Pittsburgh too much credit.

SF is far richer and better educated than Philadelphia ($25K per capita income and 50% college degrees versus $19K per capita income and 22% college degrees). Philadelphia, which in terms of population density would seem to be the best place to gather signatures, suffers from poverty and low levels of income. In the Philadelphia area anyway, the voter registration and voting records show that poor people are by far the *least* likely to support third parties, probably because they are so vulnerable and are the most dependent on the government (which is notoriously corrupt and operates on the principles of patronage and pay-to-play). The same effect is seen in both white and African American-dominated areas.

Regarding signatures in Pennsylvania, the standards are incredibly high.

Signatures are rejected if the person does not use a cursive signature (you’re screwed if you don’t), if the signature does not exactly match (including presence/absence of the middle initial ) the signature on file, if the signer does not write down the address where they are currently registered to vote, if the address does not exactly match (including street direction N/S, which many Philadelphians routinely leave off), if the person writes down their mailing address city instead of their actual municipality, if the signer accidentally writes down the wrong date (8/6 in the middle of a page of 8/4’s for instance), if any information is written in the hand of another (including the date), if the signature is illegible, if any information is omitted or dittos are used, or if signer registered to vote after the date of signing.

The standard is perfection, the intent of the signer is completely irrelevant, and the PA Supreme Court has supported these standards. These signature standards effectively only apply to minor party and independent candidates, because the signature requirements for major party candidates for their primaries are so low by comparison.

The candidate must have full-time legal counsel for the duration of a challenge and must have the number of court-mandated signature checkers (in our case this year, 9) in the state capital of Harrisburg. The first day that the prescribed number of signature checkers falls below the limit, the candidate is in contempt of court and automatically loses.

If the candidate loses the challenge, he or she is liable for the costs of the challenge, which can be hundreds of thousands of dollars. The actual amount is at the discretion of a judge, and in Nader’s case in 2004 (with fewer signatures in play), the amount was $80,000. It’s brutal!

Because of all the obstacles, there are fewer dollars, bodies, thinkers, leaders, pro bono lawyers, etc available for third party politics in PA, and it all amounts to a vicious cycle. You have to be very, very tough (if not seriously mentally ill, and many are) to work in third party politics in PA. Many Greens I know are masochistic former Roman Catholics who view the Green mission as their cross to bear on this earth 😉

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