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Pennsylvania has more unconstitutional election laws than any other state

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Pennsylvania legislators would do well to adopt a New Year's resolution to comply with the U.S. Constitution. The "Keystone State" is the worst in the nation for unconstitutional election laws on the books--laws designed to deny access to the ballot for minor party candidates.

When a law is declared unconstitutional, the normal course of business in most states is to study the court decision, draft legislation, hold hearings, and draft new laws that conform to the Constitution. However, the Pennsylvania legislature's defiance of federal court orders has resulted in its embarrassing status as a "footnote state" in the law books. Publishers of statutes have had to insert footnotes in the law citing the controlling court orders where void laws remain on the books.

Gus Hall, a presidential candidate of the Communist Party, brought suit in 1984 against Pennsylvania's early May nomination petition deadline. The case was settled by consent decree extending the deadline until the first day of August. Six presidential elections have come and gone since Hall took the state to court and still the legislature has failed to amend the law keeping alive the court order of U.S. District Judge Louis Bechtle.

The Patriot Party went to court against Pennsylvania in 1993 over the minor party signature requirement in odd years. The federal courthouse in Allentown is named for U.S. District Judge Edward Cahn, whose court order still trumps the remaining void statute.

The Reform Party had to go to court in 1999 against Pennsylvania's "sore loser" law directed at minor parties. The U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the state ban unconstitutional yet it remains in the statutes uncorrected.

The Public Interest Party went to federal court in 2001 to void the thirty-day rule. Independent candidates were barred from the ballot if they had party affiliation within 30 days of filing. Despite the U.S. District Court order against the rule, the legislature has refused to amend the law.

In 2002, the U.S. District Court, in the case of Weaver v. Morrill, struck down a petitioner residency requirement as unconstitutional. As with all the other preceding federal decisions, Pennsylvania election officials and the legislature refused to amend the law.

A Green Party candidate had to go to court to end Pennsylvania's mandatory filing fees for minor party candidates. The case was appealed and in 2003, the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Green Party challenge. Exasperated by two decades of defiance of court orders, the federal appellate court issued a rare rebuke to Pennsylvania officials.

"The only way in which to resolve the problems that give rise to this litigation is for the legislature to amend the statutes at issue to comply with the Supreme Court's ballot access jurisprudence."

In 2004, Governor Edward Rendell appointed an Election Reform Task Force to review Pennsylvania's election code and make recommendations. The Task Force issued a 65-page final report in 2005 that contained a single sentence addressing the complaints of the federal judges. "The Pennsylvania Election Code should be amended to provide greater access to the ballot for minor political parties and political bodies."

In 2006, the Pennsylvania legislature took no action on the Task Force recommendation and the unconstitutional election statutes remain on the books in defiance of federal court orders.

[Permission granted to reprint]


Michael Richardson is a freelance writer based in Boston. Richardson writes about politics, law, nutrition, ethics, and music. Richardson is also a political consultant.

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