“No other state has such a system,” says Hall, adding that the loser-pays system in electoral politics violates the First and 14th amendments. So far, he has been unable to get a hearing on the cases due to odd legal wiggles. For instance, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has refused to hear his arguments, stating he hadn’t “demonstrated any injury resulting from that statute.” (Uniquely, Pennsylvania is the only state that uses courts to determine if a petition has enough valid signatures, rather than elections officials.)
But the financial requirements, he says, are injurious. “The candidates in question were facing, literally, bankrupting judgments, at least for Carl Romanelli,” he says. “The fact is, nobody can afford $80,000 just to participate in an election.”
Unless you have one of the two party machines behind you. In 2006, Romanelli didn’t. And he’s been paying for it ever since.
“It’s 14:59, and Carl Romanelli’s 15 minutes of fame are up,” then-Senatorial candidate Bob Casey’s press secretary Larry Smar told reporters in September 2006.
Romanelli, a candidate for the Green Party of Pennsylvania, had just received a roundhouse kick off the ballot. He’d recently filed 100,000 signatures—the most in state history—to run his campaign for Senate. In addition to his ballot fail, he was charged $89,000 in legal fees.
And, like Nader, he has yet to pay the bill.
“To date I have not paid a cent,” Romanelli wrote by email to PW in December 2010, “and I do not intend to at any time in the future. I did nothing wrong. Crimes were committed against my right to speak and run for office, so I refuse to pay the attorneys, co-conspirators for the pleasure of being a victim, for a state-funded crime. The legal case against me was pure nonsense, long before the crimes of Bonusgate were known.”
The Commonwealth Court ruled enough signatures invalid that Romanelli came about 9,000 votes short when all was said and done. The legal bills he was forced to pay not only included a lawyer’s fee, but that of a handwriting expert, many of whom are often hired—and charge big bucks—for ballot challenges. In October 2008, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court refused to reopen the case of Romanelli’s payment, even though it’d been proven by then the signature challenge was conducted and paid for by Bonusgate-related activites.
The pastime of kicking indies and non-machine candidates off the ballot doesn’t show any signs of letting up. In addition to Nader’s and Romanelli’s ill-fated candidacies, there’s a whole list of candidates from all over the state who’ve been pried from the ballot due to inconsistencies and have legal fees to deal with.
In 2010, Tea Party candidate John Krupa and Libertarian Marakay Rogers were kicked from the ballot in the race for Pennsylvania governor. Green Party candidate Mel Packer was removed after a challenge from the Joe Sestak campaign. The Libertarian Party alone was faced with $110,000 in legal fees if it did not drop itself from the statewide ballot in 2010. So it did.
Essentially, things have gone downhill over the past 10 years. And Pennsylvania’s third-party candidates have had enough. In 2005, individuals representing the Green, Libertarian, Constitution, America First, Reform, Prohibition, Unified Independent and New American Independent parties formed the Swarthmore-based Pennsylvania Ballot Access Coalition. Their overarching goal: state-level legislative changes that would give Pennsylvanians more choice in their elections.
Introduced by Republican State Sen. Mike Folmer of the 48th District, Senate Bill 21 is better known as the Voters’ Choice Act. Mirroring Delaware’s ballot rules, SB 21 would allow any political party with a total registration equal to “five one-hundredths of one per centum of the total number of voters registered in the entire state as of December 31 of the year immediately preceding the primary election” to declare itself a political party, and, therefore, adhere to the 2,000 signature minimum.
The Pennsylvania Department of State notes that there are currently 8,186,052 registered voters in Pennsylvania. Therefore, in order to qualify for the 2,000-signature minimum, your party would need 4,093 registered voters, not the current 1,227,907.
Folmer says he decided to champion the bill because competition on the ballot brings about more ideas from different places. “Opposition makes you matter as a candidate,” he says. “It makes sure you know your issues.”
The Coalition is pushing for the bill alongside Folmer, Sen. Jeff Piccola (R-15), Sen. Pat Browne (R-16) and Lisa Boscola (D-18), but don’t expect anything too soon. The bill has been stalled for six years in the state Government Committee, because it’s “a challenge to the powers that be,” muses Folmer.
Bob Small, Green Party rep for the Coalition, agrees. He says that of the representatives and senators he’s talked to, no one can find a reason to vote against it. But no one wants to put their name on it, either. He thinks politicians are scared they may be signing their own political death warrants if they publicly support the bill.
A vote on SB 21 would be “hard politics” for Pennsylvania’s senators, says Folmer. By keeping the bill buried in the Senate Government Committee, legislators can tell their constituents they want to vote for it, if only it would come up for a full vote. “God forbid you have more than two people to choose from, that you go in and have to think before you vote,” he says.
“The major parties think we’re siphoning off votes from them, so they’ll try to challenge us any way they can,” Small adds. “We’re having members of all the third parties basically meet with their state representatives and meet with their state senators.”
And if you get rid of the harsh signature requirement, the harsh loser-pays challenges would be less heard of, too.
“If you had the same signature requirement for all candidates,” says Oliver Hall, who also supports SB 21, “that would mean not all minor parties would be faced with this burdensome litigation.”
Philadelphia activist Cheri Honkala has been fighting for poor people’s economic rights for the last 25 years, most notably for her efforts to keep families in their homes. But it wasn’t until recently— 2011, actually—that she got involved in party politics.