By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania Republican Party has already booted one third-party candidate from the state’s presidential ballot and is making life difficult for Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson.
Republican voters acting on behalf of the state GOP this week officially challenged the signatures submitted by Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico, who is seeking an equal place on the November ballot beside major party candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
Ron Nielson, senior adviser for the Johnson campaign, told PA Independent on Wednesday that the campaign submitted more than 49,000 signatures — more than twice the amount required to gain access to the ballot in Pennsylvania.
He said the campaign expected to survive the challenge from the Republicans.
“The two major parties have a lot of money they can use to maintain the status quo,” he said. “We’re trying to give the voters a choice between the policies of Obama and Romney, and we’re going to fight to stay on the ballot because we think the voters deserve to have that choice.”
The signatures will be challenged in Commonwealth Court.
Thursday is the final day for a candidate to qualify for the ballot, but the court could strike a candidate from the ballot after that date if it was determined they did not have enough signatures following a challenge.
In order to qualify for the ballot in Pennsylvania, the major parties have to submit only 2,000 signatures, but third party candidates had to collect more than 20,000 this year.
The process is fundamentally unfair, and the major parties have plenty of resources to go to war against candidates they are concerned may slice into their share of the vote.
“The two major parties are preventing democracy from taking place in Pennsylvania,” said Robert Small, facilitator for the Pennsylvania Ballot Access Coalition, which fights for the equal access for all parties. Small is a registered member of the Green Party.
Even if there isn’t a challenge, the third parties have to spend time and resources gathering all those signatures that could otherwise be used campaigning, Small said.
In 2006, Pennsylvania was named by the Helsinki Accords as one of the worst places in the world to have a free election. The Helsinki Accords is an international group that monitors elections. The group specifically pointed to Pennsylvania as an example of how ballot access laws in the United States limit some groups’ rights to participate in elections.
Other third parties also have felt the heavy hand of the two party oligarchy.
The Constitution Party withdrew its presidential candidate, Virgil Goode, from the state ballot on Tuesday. The party submitted 35,000 signatures, but state law would have required them to cover the cost of legal fees if the Republicans had been able to successfully challenge enough of the signatures to bring them under the state threshold.
Jim Clymer, a lawyer and state treasurer for the Pennsylvania Constitution Party, said those fees could have easily exceeded $100,000.
“We pulled out because we were threatened with having to pay their legal fees if we did not prevail,” he said. “The numbers made it appear doubtful that we would be able to survive.”
Valerie Caras, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Republican Party, said Wednesday the party was fighting to protect the integrity of the ballot by challenging the Libertarian and Constitution candidates.
“Our Commonwealth’s election guidelines require nominating petitions to contain legitimate signatures of registered voters. Upon close inspection, neither set of nominating petitions meets that standard,” she wrote in an email.
The battle over signatures is the second ballot access battle Johnson’s campaign has had to fight this week in the Keystone State.
On Tuesday night, Johnson had to fly cross-country from New Mexico to Pennsylvania in order to re-sign documents in front of officials at the Pennsylvania Department of State on Wednesday morning.
The issue: Johnson’s original submission lacked an apostille – a form of certification for documents similar to having something notarized – and was deemed invalid by state officials on Tuesday.
“The Republican Party has a room full of lawyers who can go through and challenge these signatures and all we have is a bunch of volunteers who have taken off from work to collect the signatures and fight the challenges,” Nielson said.
He said the Libertarian Party is on the ballot in 36 states and in the process of qualifying for the ballot in the remaining 14 states plus the District of Columbia.
Pennsylvania has more than 4.1 million registered Democrats and nearly 3.1 million registered Republicans, according to the latest voter registration figures.
Even so, the major parties have reason to fear those small groups of people, said Terry Madonna, a professor of political science at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster.
“In a close election, they don’t want the minor party to drain votes away from their candidates,” Madonna said. “It’s rare that it makes a difference, but we saw it make a difference in Florida in 2000.”
Contact Eric Boehm at Eric@PAIndependent.com or follow @PAIndependent on Twitter
This story was updated to include Valerie Caras’ comments at 5:54 p.m.