For years, smaller political parties have complained that Pennsylvania's election laws make it too hard for them to get on the ballot, thus denying voters more choices. A federal judge says they're right.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence Stengel has found the state's rules for third-party candidates unconstitutional, and the opinion is worth reading.

An interesting coalition of political actors brought the suit: the Green Party, the Libertarian Party, and the conservative Constitution Party.

One of the named plaintiffs, Carl Romanelli, tried to run for U.S. Senate as a Green Party candidate in 2006. His story illustrates the way the game works.

Start with the number of signatures he had to collect for his nominating petitions.

For Republican and Democratic candidates, each office has a set number of nominating signatures needed to get on the ballot. But for others, a formula determines the number needed: 2 percent of the highest vote-getter for the last general election of the office they're seeking.

In 2006 that meant that while Republicans and Democrats needed 2,000 signatures statewide to qualify for the ballot, Romanelli needed 67,070.

Romanelli turned in more than 94,000 (with help from Republicans who were happy to have the liberal Greens on the ballot against Democrat Bob Casey).

When Democrats challenged his nominating petitions, Romanelli says,"That led to what I can only call seven weeks of torture in Harrisburg."

Who challenges, and how

This brings up another aspect of Pennsylvania's system that Stengel found problematic.

Rather than requiring state election officials to review nominating petitions, Pennsylvania permits private parties to challenge petitions in court.

In Romanelli's case, he was required to provide nine people to sit all day, every day, for seven weeks in court with nine people from the Democratic Party, reviewing each signature.

Eventually, he told me, "We were removed from the ballot and for that pleasure, I was assessed nearly $90,000 in costs and fees."

In Pennsylvania, anyone who successfully challenges nominating petitions and convinces a court the petitions exhibited fraud or bad faith can get an order for the unsuccessful candidate to cover their costs.

Judge Stengel noted that any third-party candidate will have to file far more signatures than major party candidates, that the third-party candidate can expect to be challenged by a major party, and that defending all those thousands of extra signatures imposes a financial burden.

"The plaintiffs right to develop their political parties has been severely burdened," Stengel wrote.

Romanelli refused to pay his assessment, which was reduced to $84,000. Romanelli's lawyer, Oliver Hall, noted that when indictments in the Bonusgate case were presented in 2008, he learned how the Democrats had mustered the effort to analyze the 97,000 signatures in Romanelli's petitions.

"State employees of the House and Senate were doing this on taxpayer time," he said.

It's true. You can look it up.

How did I get here?
The state's burdensome signature requirements for third-party candidates were imposed in 1971.

Finding someone who'd explain and defend them after the ruling wasn't easy. The state Republican and Democratic parties, which typically challenge third-party candidates, had nothing meaningful to say. Ditto for state officials. They're reviewing the ruling, and could appeal.

The argument for signature requirements is that they ensure orderly elections and keep frivolous candidates from cluttering the ballot.

Hall said there's plenty of research that shows you can accomplish that without requiring tens of thousands of signatures.

"Any time a state has required as few as 5,000 signatures on a nomination petition for statewide office, they've never had any more than eight candidates on the ballot," he said.


Judge Stengel, who said Pennsylvania's system is unconstitutional, didn't say what's supposed to be done about it.

The most straightforward fix would be for the Legislature to change the election code.

State Sen. Mike Folmer, a Republican from Lebanon County, has long sponsored a measure that would require the same number of signatures from third-party candidates that the Republicans and Democrats have to collect. How have party leaders reacted?

"Let's just say, with cold shoulders," Folmer told me. "I think that's the best way I could describe it."

Folmer has been pushing this idea since he was a freshman senator nine years ago. I asked him why.

"I just believe it will create a more competitive, more interesting campaign, and we can more people out to vote," he said.

Folmer said he hopes that the court decision will convince legislative leaders to give his bill a serious look.