Minor parties get victory in Pennsylvania ballot access suit

The Associated Press

HARRISBURG — A new federal court order will make it much easier for minor political party candidates to get onto the fall election ballot in Pennsylvania, potentially injecting new uncertainty into the races for president and U.S. Senate.

The ruling released late Thursday by U.S. District Judge Lawrence Stengel ordered substantially lower signature requirements for minor-party candidates in a 4-year-old lawsuit that had successfully challenged the financial penalties they could face in court challenges to their nomination papers.

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

“This is a huge win for voter choice and free elections in Pennsylvania,” said Oliver Hall, a lawyer at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Competitive Democracy who represented the plaintiffs, including the Constitution, Libertarian and Green parties of Pennsylvania.

Unless Pennsylvania state lawmakers pass a new law, a minor-party candidate now must submit at least 5,000 voter signatures by the Aug. 1 deadline to get on Pennsylvania’s ballot for president or U.S. Senate in the November election, Stengel ruled.

That is down from the more than 21,000 that would have been required this year by the Pennsylvania law that Stengel blocked. Republicans and Democrats needed just 2,000 signatures to get on the primary election ballot for president or U.S. senator.

In a statement, Gov. Tom Wolf’s office said he was pleased with Stengel’s ruling and that he wants “to ensure greater ballot access for minor parties.”

Pennsylvania law had set the minor-party signature requirement at 2 percent of the highest vote-getter in the previous year’s general election, or 2 percent of 1,088,716.

“Compared to what the 2 percent rule did in the past, 5,000 signatures is a walk in the park,” said Larry Otter, a Bucks County lawyer who handles ballot-access cases.

The question now is whether and how the Pennsylvania Legislature will respond, Otter said.

A 2015 decision by Stengel in the case was upheld last month by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. That prevented Pennsylvania judges from ordering candidates for public office to pay legal bills of a successful court challenge to their nomination paperwork.

Starting with a court decision against 2004 independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader, Republicans and Democrats had successfully transformed the financial provision into a cudgel that scared off independent or minor-party candidates from running, ballot-access advocates say.

“Very few people can afford $80,000 or $100,000 just to defend their right to run for public office,” Hall said.