I had first hand experiences with the crazy requirements that have been part of the landscape in PA. Let's hope for sanity in the future.
By Chris Potter / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A federal judge has made it easier for third-party candidates to appear on the state ballot this November, possibly adding a new variable into an already dizzying presidential election.
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Lawrence F. Stengel of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania issued an order asserting that presidential candidates in three minor parties — the Libertarian Party, the Green Party, and the Constitution Party — will need only 5,000 voters to sign their nominating petitions. That's roughly a quarter of the 21,775 signatures they would have needed under the old rules.
The order "restores voter choice to Pennsylvania elections, which has been absent other than the major parties," said Oliver Hall, an attorney who represented the minor parties. "Now people can decide if they want to vote for someone else entirely, and that's how our elections should work."
Major-party candidates need only 2,000 signatures to get on the primary ballot — where a win ensures a space in November. But previously, minor-party statewide candidates were obliged to meet a threshold equal to 2 percent of the previous statewide vote-count. In past years, that has required candidates to obtain up to 67,000 signatures.
Mr. Hall said that even under the old rules, it was “close to a certainty” that the third-party contenders would have won spots on the 2016 ballot. But Thursday’s ruling also makes it harder to remove them.
Previously, if the legitimacy of a candidate’s signatures was successfully challenged in court, the winner could recoup the legal costs of doing so. In 2004, for example, Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader was billed over $80,000 -- a crippling sum for smaller political parties.
Judge Stengel's ruling restricts the ability to assess such costs. That was "absolutely a load off our minds," said Shawn Patrick House, who chairs the state Libertarian Party.
Signature requirements for other races are also lower. Candidates for auditor general, treasurer, and attorney general — all of which are on this year’s ballot — must procure 2,500 signatures. Senate candidates must also produce 5,000 signatures. But the ruling may have the greatest impact on the race for president.
Pennsylvania is a potentially key battleground, and polling shows many voters discontented with both Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump.
“Usually I discount third-party candidates,” said Muhlenberg College pollster Christopher Borick. “But the polls in Pennsylvania show the race as fairly close. Put that together with the high unfavorable ratings of both candidates, and a third-party candidate or two could be pivotal.”
A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed Ms. Clinton leading Mr. Trump by 39 percent to 36 percent, with Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson garnering 9 percent and the Green Party’s Jill Stein with 4 percent. Mr. Borick said that while Ms. Stein would likely appeal to “disenchanted progressives” who might otherwise back Ms. Clinton, Mr. Johnson’s impact was harder to gauge: “Nationally, it seems like he draws marginally from both candidates.”
The legal dispute over the requirements dates back years. In 2015, Judge Stengel ruled that the high signature requirements, combined with the threat of financial penalties, meant "the ability of the minor parties to ... voice their views has been decimated.” Gov. Tom Wolf's administration appealed, saying it had no power to change election rules set by the courts and the legislature.
Judge Stengel’s order bridged that impasse, and in fact incorporated the administration’s own proposed signature requirements. “Governor Wolf ... wants to ensure greater ballot access for minor parties,” said Mr. Wolf’s office in a statement, “and he is pleased with Judge Stengel’s ruling.”
The state Republican Party sounded less pleased. "These are decisions that we believe are best left to the General Assembly,” it said in a statement.
In fact, Judge Stengel’s order applies “until ... the Pennsylvania Legislature enacts a permanent measure amending or modifying the process to place [minor parties] on the general election ballot.” A measure to do so, House Bill 342, was passed by the House, amended by the Senate last month, and is pending in the House again. The bill sets out petition requirements consistent with those in Judge Stengel’s order.
But for the time being, as Mr. House put it, "We have more than Coke and Pepsi candidates.”