By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG – Three state judges will, ultimately, decide Gary Johnson’s place on the presidential ballot in Pennsylvania.
In the meantime, a small army of volunteers who support Johnson, the Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee and former governor of New Mexico, will continue to do battle with the well-funded and well-heeled lawyers paid by the state Republican Party. A group of GOP voters are trying to remove Johnson from the ballot by challenging petitions signed in support of his candidacy.
A panel of three Commonwealth Court judges Sept. 12 in Harrisburg will decide Johnson’s fate, unless one side concedes.
Roy Minet, chairman of the Pennsylvania Libertarian Party’s media relations committee, said Friday more than 75 volunteers — including some from as far away as Colorado — are helping to keep Johnson on the ballot in Pennsylvania.
“The Republican strategy is to contest just about every signature in the hopes that we will give up,” Minet said. “If that doesn’t work, they will try to force us off the ballot in the courts.”
The challenge attempts to dismiss more than 40,000 of the roughly 49,000 signatures gathered on Johnson’s behalf. Under state law, third parties must have more than 20,600 signatures to qualify for the statewide ballot this year.
The process for reviewing signatures requires that one person from each side review every signature, one-by-one. If both agree the signature is legitimate, it counts toward the necessary total of 20,600 that Johnson needs to stay on the ballot.
If both agree the signature is, for some reason, invalid, it is removed from the list.
If there is disagreement, the signature is added to the list to be reviewed in court.
Ron Hicks, a lawyer representing the Republican voters challenging Johnson’s signatures, said the petitions submitted by Johnson’s campaign have a variety of problems – including duplicate signatures and signatures from unregistered voters.
“This is not a situation where our challenges are baseless,” Hicks told PA Independent on Friday. “Their petitions have a lot of problems.”
But the Republicans also challenged some petitions for what Minet calls “frivolous reasons,” such as signatures not precisely on the line or notary stamps overlapping otherwise legitimate signatures.
The first round of signature reviews lasted nearly two weeks and wrapped up Thursday in Philadelphia, but the battle will continue in Harrisburg next week.
Even if they survive the ballot challenge, the effort has drained away time and resources that could have been used to campaign for Johnson across the state, Minet said.
Adding insult to injury, under state law the Libertarian Party would be required to pay the challengers’ legal fees, if the effort proves unsuccessful.
Minet thinks those legal fees could top $200,000 — no small change for a state-level third party with limited funds.
The threat of having to pay legal fees if they lost a ballot challenge was enough to keep the Constitution Party, a conservative national third party, from even trying to keep its candidate, former Virginia Rep. Virgil Goode, on the ballot in Pennsylvania.
Though the Constitution Party submitted enough signatures to initially qualify for the ballot, it voluntarily withdrew last week after the Republican Party’s challenge.
Minet said the Libertarians will not be scared off the ballot and intend to see the challenge through to its completion, confident they will prevail.
Hicks said “time will tell” whether the challenge to Johnson’s signatures is successful, but he believes the Libertarians lack the necessary total.
The two major parties try to remove third parties from the ballot because they are concerned about losing potential voters that could swing the outcome of a close election.
Michael Beckel is a reporter for the Center for Public Integrity, a national nonpartisan investigative news organization focused on abuses of political power. He said third-party candidates have always had the ability to throw a wrench into the plans of the major parties, but the advent of so-called “super PACs” has increased that threat.
“Now a super PAC financed by one wealthy donor can unleash a deluge of last-minute ads touting a candidate like Gary Johnson, who many voters might not have been aware of otherwise,” he wrote in an email Friday. “In a close election, every vote counts.”
In the battle to stay on the ballot in Pennsylvania, Johnson’s supporters find that every signature counts, as well.
Contact Eric at Eric@PAIndependent.com and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter