Philly’s Petitions in; Now Begins Counting and Challenging

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BY DAVID LYNN
The period for gathering signatures to achieve ballot access has just passed for two-party candidates for both party and public office. Through new legislation, new rules concerning petitioning for ballot access for the two major parties (Democratic and Republican) are in play in Pennsylvania. These new rules have relaxed some of the requirements for signature gathering, and are easing ballot access.

Under previous legislation, a petition circulator was required to live in the same district where the candidate for which they were circulating lived. This is no longer the case. Any voter registered with the same party as the petitioning candidate who is also a resident of Pennsylvania may circulate for that candidate. There is conjecture that the law might allow for circulators to be of a different party than the candidate for which they are circulating, but the reality may be affected by future judicial decisions.

In addition to relaxing requirements for circulators, petition circulators no longer need to see a notary to have their affidavit notarized before turning in their petitions. This means that an individual can circulate a petition for a candidate, then turn it into the candidate without paying $5.00 or going to a special turn-in location at a certain time where a notary will be present.

In Philadelphia, these changes will affect the Republicans in Philadelphia more than the Democrats, who have an overwhelming voter-registration advantage. Whereas Democratic circulators may frequent train stations to catch commuters to gather signatures (and sometimes the subway itself) Republicans in Philadelphia have a more-difficult time determining exactly who can sign a petition for a candidate. This means Republicans usually must identify their potential signers from the voter street list and target them more precisely.

During the last round of petitioning, a number of signature parties were held which invited GOP voters to come to sign several petitions at once. We will probably see more of this in the future from the Republicans, and maybe even the Democrats – petitioning is the most painful part of politics, and with fewer people answering their doors today, it may be the wave of the future.

When an individual turns in petitions to the City Commissioners in Philadelphia or the Department of State in Harrisburg, neither body makes a determination as to the validity of the signatures. Instead, they simply verify that the minimum number of signatures for the office in question is present, and then, assuming the other parts of the filing are in order, they accept the signatures.

For example, for State representative, the signature requirement is 300. If an individual petitions to get on the ballot as a State representative, they may arrive at the Bureau of Commissions, Elections & Legislation with 600 petition signatures (twice the necessary amount.) The BCEL will usually perform a count of the minimum necessary signatures (300 in this case) and then accept all of the signatures and mark them as filed. It is up to opponents of the individual running for office, either directly or through proxies, to challenge the validity of the signatures themselves, and these challenges take place in court.

When petition signatures are challenged, the challenger is usually required to challenge specific individual signatures on a candidate’s petitions, either by comparing them to the signature on file with the Commonwealth that appears on the voter registration affidavit, or by having actual voters appear in court to testify as to the validity of their signatures. Signature challenges can get quite heated at times. A candidate is wise to gather many more signatures than necessary in order to withstand a signature challenge from an opponent.

It is legal to pay individuals to gather signatures in Pennsylvania. Most candidates pay by the signature, and rates may vary from $1.50 per signature to $5.00 per signature. This can make getting on the ballot an expensive proposition and, like many parts of the political process, favors wealthier candidates.

One enterprising individual we interviewed who was seeking ballot access gathered several petition signatures by mail. He mailed regular party voters a copy of his petition, along with instructions for signing and a return envelope that had a stamp. He put himself down as the circulator when the petitions were returned. Because no notarization of each petition that came back was necessary, this was quite cost-effective, given the going rate for signature collection.

If someone objects to his petitions, it will be up to a judge to decide whether or not the signatures collected by mail are valid. This individual will probably not be the last to petition in this manner, so at some point, the method will be tested in court. Stay tuned.

The petitions filed for the Apr. 28 primary were filed this Tuesday. It will be up to Commonwealth Court to decide their outcome.

David Lynn is an independent political analyst living in Philadelphia. He is often found with his family sampling its wonderfully diverse cuisine. His blog is http://WinningCampaigns.vote. He produces software to run campaigns in Pennsylvania at http://papolcm.com.

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