On a recent Friday morning, Nathan Kleinman is leaving Commonwealth Court an unhappy camper. Having been named the country’s first ‘Occupy’ Democrat candidate for higher office, the human-rights activist has just had his 1,500 signatures for the 13th District ballot challenged by Democratic U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, the incumbent.
Knowing he could not afford a long legal battle against Schwartz, Kleinman filed a motion to dismiss the challenge, claiming he was not properly served legal papers by Schwartz’s counsel. He represents himself at the hearing. The motion is denied. And he’s got one option left: Run as a write-in candidate.
“I withdrew my application when it became apparent that the court was not going to accept my motion to dismiss the case,” he later tells PW. “It’s more worth my time to focus on actually helping people and listening to voters’ problems, going to community meetings, feeding the homeless and doing all the things that I do on a daily basis, rather than go to court.” After all, he says, a write-in candidacy is “the Occupy way to go, anyway.”
But because this is Pennsylvania, Kleinman wasn’t exactly off the hook. See, it’s perfectly acceptable for incumbents to ask kicked-out candidates to pay their legal fees.
“It’s a legal option for the campaign to request that Nate Kleinman pay legal fees,” says Rachel Magnuson, Rep. Allyson Schwartz’s chief of staff. “We have not made a decision of whether we will pursue that option or not, but it is an option that the judge is willing to consider.”
Ultimately, the Schwartz campaign decided not to pursue the loser-pays payment option, leaving Kleinman off the hook. (Though they insist they were just following state law protocol.)
“I didn’t think she was going to challenge my petitions at all,” Kleinman says. “I figured that was going to be a bad story for her.”
Kleinman’s not the first insurgent candidate to be kicked off the ballot in Pennsylvania. He certainly won’t be the last.
With its laws regarding challenges to an often hefty ballot-signature requirement and the loser-pays system, Pennsylvania’s election system favors wealthy, politically powerful candidates (moreso than other states)—while deterring their opponents, especially third-party candidates, from even attempting a run for office. Third parties across Pennsylvania have gotten behind State Senate Bill 21—ballot-signature reform—which would put the first dent in Pennsylvania’s oft-anti-democratic system. (A system that led the Helsinki Accords’ Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights—the same group that convened in 1975 to improve Western-Soviet relations—in 2006 to call the commonwealth one of the worst spots in the entire world to hold free and fair elections.) Similarly, there are pending lawsuits that would cut out the loser-pays rule being debated in Pennsylvania right now. But most state politicians and judges familiar and satisfied with the status quo aren’t getting near any of it.
Rules of the Game
On the surface, the rules don’t seem so bad. Kleinman originally called Pennsylvania’s congressional registration rules of 1,000 signatures and $150 fee “a pretty low bar,” according to the original Politico report of his candidacy.
But Pennsylvania’s problems with democracy are buried well below the level playing field. Here’s what’s not mentioned on the Pennsylvania Department of State’s website: Anyone can challenge the petitions of anyone else running for office in Pennsylvania. And if you have the cash on hand to follow through, there’s little your opponent can do to stop you.
“Pennsylvania has an electoral system that is extremely biased against third parties and independents,” says Chris Robinson, at-large member of the Philadelphia Green Party City Committee. “This should be obvious to every voter because you never see a third party or independent on the ballot when you go to vote, and that means that the voter is deprived of choices that they should have.”
The Pennsylvania State Charter defines any political, statewide party as an established group which has, in the preceding statewide election, polled at least 2 percent of the “largest entire vote cast for any elected candidate in each of at least 10 counties, and polled a total statewide vote of at least 2% of the largest entire vote cast in the State for any elected candidate.” That language was put into place on June 3, 1937.
If minor candidates are kept off the ballot in the preceding election, it’s impossible for them to have polled at all. And it gets worse.
Let’s say you’re an Independent, Green, Libertarian or whatever else. If your party’s total statewide registration is less than 15 percent at the close of the last election (and it is), you’re considered a minor party. Then, in order to get on the ballot, you need to collect signatures that represent 2 percent of the highest vote-getter in the state’s previous election. For instance, Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein will likely need 20,601 signatures to run for office in Pennsylvania in the 2012 elections. That number is based on 2 percent of the 2011 vote for David Wecht for Superior Court judge, who received 1,030,004 votes. Robinson says Pa.’s Green Party—anticipating all kinds of challenges—is shooting to get 40,000 nominating signatures. By comparison, President Obama will need only 2,000. As will the eventual Republican nominee.
But 40,000 may still not be enough. In 2006, Carl Romanelli, Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate, was required to turn in an unprecedented 67,000 signatures to get on the ballot because in 2004, a presidential year, then-state Treasurer candidate Bob Casey Jr. earned 3.4 million votes, the most in the state. Romanelli turned in nearly 100,000 signatures, the largest total in state history. He still got the boot—and was ordered to pay his opponents’ legal fees.
That tradition continues despite a statewide investigation that led to several convictions of elected officials, hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid legal fees, a federal suit to challenge the constitutionality of the statute, and, perhaps worst of all: one pissed-off Ralph Nader.
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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.
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