HARRISBURG — A federal judge threw out provisions in Pennsylvania law on Friday that he said make it unconstitutionally difficult for independent or minor political party candidates to get onto ballots because of the threat of costly court challenges.

The decision was cheered by ballot-access advocates who regard Pennsylvania as harboring the nation's toughest barriers to candidates who are not Republicans or Democrats.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Lawrence Stengel in Philadelphia targets the financial penalties that judges can impose on candidates who lose a court challenge to the validity of the signatures of registered voters on their nomination petitions.

Because signature requirements for independent or minor party candidates are greater than those for Democrats and Republicans, so are the lawyers' fees and work necessary to validate each voter's signature if their petitions are challenged ahead of an election.

"That's caused real damage to the democratic process in Pennsylvania," said Oliver Hall, a lawyer at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Competitive Democracy. He represented plaintiffs that include the Constitution, Libertarian and Green parties of Pennsylvania.

In theory, the threat of paying lawyers' fees and other costs racked up by the challengers is designed to dissuade the submission of fraudulent nomination petitions. But it also dissuades legitimate candidates, Stengel wrote, and the burden of the fines falls unequally heavy on minor party or independent candidates.

Ballot-access advocates say Republicans and Democrats have successfully transformed the provision into a cudgel that has scared off independent or minor-party candidates from running. With the exception of a couple statewide elections in the past decade, Pennsylvania voters have had to pick only between Republicans and Democrats in statewide elections, Hall said.

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.

"This opinion is really an indictment of the Pennsylvania political process for getting on the ballot," said Chester County election lawyer Paul Rossi.

Lawyers on Friday disagreed over whether Stengel's decision also struck down Pennsylvania's higher signature requirement for independent minor party candidates. Stengel did not respond to a request for comment, and the Wolf administration declined comment on the case or whether it would appeal.

Larry Otter, a Bucks County lawyer who handles ballot-access cases, said he did not expect an appeal after the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia last year overturned Stengel's earlier decision to throw out the lawsuit for lack of standing. It sent it back to him for a decision.

Stengel's ruling was significant because legal fees can escalate quickly, Otter said.

"It can go to $100,000 without breathing hard," Otter said.

Pennsylvania is the only state that hears ballot challenges in the courts. Richard Winger, a ballot access activist who publishes Ballot Access News, said no other state charges people who lose challenges to their nomination petitions.

Winger, Otter and Rossi did not think Stengel's decision struck down the signature requirement for minor party or independent candidates. Hall said he believed it did.

Assuming it still stands, the signature requirement for the fall election is 16,639 for statewide minor party or independent candidates, according to state elections officials. The deadline to file nomination petitions is Aug. 3.

For Republicans and Democrats to get on the primary election ballot, the requirement is 2,000 valid signatures for president, U.S. senator and governor. It is 1,000 valid signatures for treasurer, auditor general and attorney general.


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