How the system works: who gets on the ballot?

In honor of primary election day (today), I am reposting this, first posted in the Times of Chester County.

People go in to vote every May and November (at least, that’s what both major parties hope they do). But voters mostly can’t imagine how those names got on the ballot.

Access is basically in the hands of the Republicans and Democrats in our 2-party system.

Independents can get on the ballot in 2 ways:

1) By winning a party primary. That can happen only in a “cross-filed” primary for school board or for judge of the court of Common Pleas or Magisterial District Judge, most likely only when a party doesn’t have at least one candidate for each position open; or

2) By filing “nomination papers” over the summer, for any position.

The chances of an Independent ever winning in November are, to say the least, remote, which means 20% of the local electorate have virtually no chance to serve in elected office. (For practical purposes, “minor parties” rank as Independents, unless they meet a % requirement to get candidates on the primary ballot, which they usually can’t.)

The campaign season begins in February, when candidates circulate petitions to get on the ballot. They need 10 signatures for municipal offices and school board, 100 for Magisterial District Justice, 250 for countywide offices (including Court of Common Pleas), 1,000 for US Congress, and so on up the ladder.

This is why in late February and early March, candidates and their representatives come around to regular voters’ doors, to meet the needed number of signers. Maybe it’s also why some voters register Independent, so no one will hunt them down for a signature.

Some signatures will turn out to be invalid: either the signer is not really registered, or is not registered in the party required, or is registered somewhere else, or signed 2 petitions for an office limited to one signature, etc.

Usually, opponents will look through candidates’ signatures and file a challenge if they can. So, if you need 100 signatures, you’d want to try for 150+ to be safe, etc.

Signers must be registered voters in the party of the candidate, except that for cross-filed positions, campaigns get R signatures to be on the R ballot and D signatures to be on the D ballot. The circulator of a petition must be a member of the same party as the signers except for cross-filed judges. (Why? Who knows!)

Suppose you are a R candidate and want to cross-file for school board but can’t find a D to carry a petition for you. No problem, you just get a friend or relative to change to D for a few days and get those signatures from D’s. PA doesn’t have early voting or at-the-polls registration, but we have instant party-switching back and forth.

Now, who patrols this complex system? That’s where it gets really interesting. Suppose you are a candidate and discover that an opponent broke a rule; for example, he doesn’t have enough valid signers, or her petition was not circulated by a member of the signers’ party. Well, obviously the County would keep people off the ballot if they don’t follow the rules to be on it, right?

Wrong! No doubt because of state-level regulations, the County takes candidates’ fees but all Voter Services looks at is, as far as I can see, whether all blanks have been filled in on the form and the number of signatures (valid or not). Imaginary people could sign, and the candidate would be on the ballot unless an individual goes to a lot of trouble to keep him off. This happens, but only rarely, because it is a real burden:

You document the invalid signatures or circulators

You get a lawyer to write cover letters and fill out forms

You make 4 copies

You go to one County office to file your paper work and pay $173.

You take a stamped copy to another County office to get your court date.

You take a copy to Voter Services

You take a copy to the person whose presence on the ballot you are challenging.

You wait to hear if you did it all right and then, when you get a date, you and your lawyer go to court to make your case.

And see what the judge says.

Good luck! Wouldn’t you think there would be a better way to see that people who break the rules don’t get on the ballot than to go to a busy judge and say: “We hereby demonstrate that M. Mouse is not registered to vote in West Goshen” or “We hereby show that the Republican candidate is not a Democrat”?

Now, back to those poor neglected Independents. Suppose you, a Green, want to get on the ballot for Prothonotary (that’s the county office where you pay the above-mentioned $173). That office is on the ballot this year. According to the applicable rules:

“… the minimum number of signatures required is two percent of the largest entire vote cast for any officer (except a judge of a court of record) elected at the last preceding election held in the same electoral district, but it may not be less than the number required for nomination petitions for political party candidates for the same office (exceptions to this rule apply to new electoral districts.)”

To file those nominating papers, that number would work out this year to 874 signatures. “What?!” you say, “As an Independent I need over 3 times as many signatures as a D or an R to get on the ballot?”

Yes, Virginia, welcome to the 2-party system.

Still, the Democrats or Republicans who get on your November ballot do deserve credit for overcoming a lot of obstacles, rounding up signatures, paying their filing fees, navigating their own parties’ approval process, and committing to serve in office.

And they are counting on people just like you (except Independents) to turn out and vote in this year’s May 19 primary election.

And then, the winners will appear on the November 3 general election ballot. Put that in your calendar too!

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About politicswestchesterview

Nathaniel regards himself as a progressive Democrat who sees a serious need to involve more Americans in the political process if we are to rise to Ben Franklin's challenge "A republic, madam, if you can keep it," after a passerby asked him what form of government the founders had chosen. This blog gives my views and background information on the local, state, and national political scenes. My career in higher education was mainly in the areas of international studies, foreign languages, and student advising, most recently at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, from which I retired in 2006. I have lived in West Chester since 1986.
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One Response to How the system works: who gets on the ballot?

  1. Warren Popjoy says:

    Primary elections are party elections. US Courts have said that, and ruled that parties can exclude….via their right of free association….independents and non-affiliated candidates and voters from their election process. Fair enough. Same goes for the Boy Scouts and the Hell’s Angels. Private groups can control their own internal processes. Primaries are not government elections…they are party elections.
    Independents, who are locked out of the primary process, and thus cannot participate in the initital stages of the election process, must however, allow their tax dollars to be used to fund those private, party elections. This should be illegal. We don’t pay for the Boy Scouts election process or for the Hell’s Angels’ either.
    Worse, is that, should a candidate lose their primary, the parties, through their elected members, have written into law a “sore loser” statute which then prevents that candidate from running in the government election either as an independent or representing another party, unless they were “cross-filed” with the other party and won there. This is hardly democracy. The parties should have the right to say who represents their party only, but not who gets to run for office in general. Since there is only one government election for any office, in November, anyone who wants to appear on the ballot should have an equal chance to be there regardless of the private party elections.. The Pennsylvania Constitution guarantees “free and fair” elections., but the two major parties have hijacked the process, to their advantage and disenfranchised anyone who does not align themselves with them, including the independent voters and candidates.
    The Pennsylvania Constitution states in the declaration of rights that “all power is inherent in the people and all free governments are founded on their authority”, yet people who choose to be independent (think for themselves) are sidelined by the two major parties. The US Constitution not only grants no particular rights or privileges to political parties, it does not even mention them. Yet they control the process. One need ask no better authority than George Washington how the founders of the country viewed political parties. He warned in his farewell address about the dangers of them, and the risk to the young democracy.
    It is very difficult to understand how any of this can be Constitutional at either the state or federal level. If we allow this to continue, we are all…Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, and others to blame for the loss of free elections.

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