To get on the ballot, candidates need a certain number of voters to sign their nomination petition. Each signature is a potential point of litigation, which can get very costly for a campaign. But by knocking an opponent off the ballot before any votes are even cast, a candidate can cruise to a primary election victory without the cost of a full campaign.
Every decision to challenge an opponent’s nomination petitions must be made in its unique political context. But should a campaign choose to engage in such a tactic, it is crucial that the campaign succeed in knocking the opponent off of the ballot. Otherwise, it will appear that a candidate is trying to undermine the will of the people.
To maximize the chance of success in court, campaigns need to understand the legal weak points in a nomination petition. Using Pennsylvania election law as an example, this article will help campaigners considering such a move recognize potential petition pitfalls.
One of the easiest ways to strike names from a nomination petition is to search every single signature line for a defect—it just takes one mistake to strike a signature.
For example, Pennsylvania law requires that each signer of a petition be a member of the party designated, reside in the political district, provide his or her address, legibly print his or her name, and add the date of signing (the date must fall within the three week circulation period).
A defect in any of these elements can be sufficient for striking the signature.
One letter can make all the difference. In 2003, Pennsylvania Commonwealth Judge Rochelle Friedman found that “[w]here a signer uses simply the first letter of the first name, the signature may be stricken as an improper deviation from the elector’s signature on the voter registration card.”
Even nicknames can result in a lost signature.
In 1994, voters signed a Democratic state senate candidate’s petition using their nickname instead of their proper name, which led to the signatures being stricken in court. Judge Joseph Doyle reasoned that “certain cases may be obvious (such as using Mike for Michael), but others are not (for example Terry can be a nickname for Terrence or Theresa, Fred can be Alfred or Frederick).”
The use of nicknames has continued to cost candidates signatures in years since, but a recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision loosened the nickname rule, saying that an “obvious diminutive version” of a first name is acceptable. But what is obvious?
Justice Max Baer said that “when elector Edward Christopher signed Candidate’s nomination petition as Ed Christopher, no great deductive power was required to determine the signatory.”
Sometimes, in the chaos of a campaign, a voter might accidentally sign a candidate’s petition twice. While perhaps only a harmless lapse of memory, the results can be devastating.
In a 1984 case challenging the petition of a Republican candidate for Pennsylvania state senate, two names were struck as being duplicates. The candidate needed 200 signatures to be on the ballot, and the court found only 198 valid signatures—two short!
And it’s not just the name column that could get a candidate in trouble.
Pennsylvania courts have struck signatures because the signer failed to record the date of signing, instead placing ditto marks in the date column, the signer gave his mailing address instead of his voting address, and various other reasons.
Every letter, every word, every digit is an opportunity.
The greatest opportunity of all, however, is getting a circulator—not a signer—disqualified. That’s because a campaign can have an entire list of signatures thrown out if the staffer or volunteer who collected the signatures incorrectly fills out the circulator’s affidavit.
Pennsylvania law requires that a circulator complete an affidavit for each petition sheet. The circulator must be a “qualified elector duly registered and enrolled as a member of the designated party,” must provide “his residence, giving city, borough or township, with street and number,” and must swear to the accuracy of the signatures collected.
Pennsylvania courts have thrown out entire petitions because a circulator did not meet these requirements.
For example, the Commonwealth Court has tossed an entire petition sheet because the circulator did not “become a registered member of the Democratic party until after the filing deadline.”
In the 2008 state treasurer election, the Commonwealth Court struck over a hundred signatures collected for former State Representative Jennifer Mann in Allegheny County because the circulators were not residents of the county.
In a 1976 case involving a Democratic candidate for Senate, a circulator was unable to sign the circulator’s affidavit affixed to the petition due to an injury, and had his father write his signature for him. The Commonwealth Court held the petition to be invalid.
On the flip side, there is much candidates can do to protect their petitions from a challenge.
First, to provide a buffer against signature disqualification, a good campaign should get at least twice the number of signatures required. In Pennsylvania, a congressional candidate needs one thousand signatures, a state senator needs five hundred, and a state representative needs three hundred.
The added cost in time and resources to seek those extra signatures may seem daunting, but it is dwarfed by the legal fees of an attorney specializing in election law.
Second, when walking neighborhoods in search of voters willing to sign, make sure petition circulators have a list of voter names exactly as the names appear on the voter registration cards. Warn signers that they must match the name and address exactly.
Finally, make sure all of the circulators take great care when filling out their affidavit. Hire a notary and have the circulators complete their affidavits in front of a senior staffer with an eye for detail.
Challenging an opponent’s nomination petition might be seen as a dirty trick, but it is also a political reality. By being aware of the specifics of state election laws, understanding how election law attorneys have been able to eliminate candidate competitors, and utilizing defensive strategies, a campaign is more likely to win on Election Day.