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.