Free and equal elections: Not so important to State Government Committee

Senate Bill 195, better known as the Voters’ Choice Act, was introduced by Senator Mike Folmer of Lebanon. While falling short of being a cure for all that is wrong with ballot access issues in Pennsylvania the legislation would constitute a significant step to making elections in the state free and equal, as mandated by no less than Article 1, Section 5, of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The act is endorsed by Pennsylvania’s Ballot Access Coalition and enjoys bipartisan support. Specifically, the VCA aims to extend to independents, the fastest growing electorate in Pennsylvania, and third party candidates the same criteria needed to be placed on the ballot as Republican and Democratic. Currently there exists a large disparity in the number of nomination signatures needed for independents to get on the ballot compared to the quantity needed by members of the Republican and Democratic Parties. The challenge period — the span of time following the submission of nomination petitions during which they may be contested — is also more onerous for independents. Successfully defending against such a challenge often delays an official entry onto the November ballot until late into the election cycle, thus diminishing the impact on the electoral process by independent and third party office-seekers.

 
Carl Romanelli

Carl Romanelli

A more devious and unprecedented side effect of the disparity in signatures needed for independents’ ability to appear before voters in the General Election  is what some have termed economic intimidation. A strategy that started locally in 2006 when Democrats successfully challenged the nomination petitions of Green Party US Senate candidate (and current Gazette contributor) Carl Romanelli, resulting in court-assessed fines of over $80,000, was taken to unprecedented heights by the Republican establishment in 2010 and 2012. In those election cycles Pennsylvania GOP operatives contested the nominations of candidates from both the Constitution and Libertarian Parties. In 2010 Libertarian candidates were given an ultimatum from Republican lawyers: vacate the ballot or face potential fines — personally — of over $100,000. The same ultimatum was presented to candidates from both the Constitution and Libertarian Parties two years later. In 2012 the Constitution Party succumbed to the pressure, while the Libertarians decided to fight. Despite prevailing after a nine-week slog, Libertarians such as presidential candidate and former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson and others, including local political pioneer Betsy Summers, were not official candidates until only weeks before the General Election, making any meaningful run impossible. What is also notable is the nomination challenge process itself. Any signature gathered is subject to examination by either registered Republicans or Democrats. For example, close to 2,000 signatures acquired by Betsy Summers were disputed because she signed her name ”Betsy Summers” instead of Elizabeth Summers — as it appears on her Voter Registration Card. And all this despite her appearance on the ballot as Betsy Summers and serving for years as a judge of elections as Betsy Summers. Full dates, town abbreviations, and notary errors are all reasons given to remove signatures from petitions. Fortunately, all three of Northeastern Pennsylvania’s Senators, Blake,Yudichak, and Baker are signed on as co-sponsors of SB 195, with Senator John Yudichak serving on the State Government Committee to which the legislation has been assigned. The office of Senator Baker’s response concerning the current status of SB 195 was that the act “has not been scheduled for consideration.“ The Gazette has posed to each member of the State Government Committee the following question, Is there anything more important coming out of this committee than free and equal elections?

 
Sen. John P. Blake

Sen. John P. Blake

Senator Blake weighed in on the issue. “Really, it is up to the committee chairman to move it out of committee.” Blake explained, “This bill has bipartisan support which lends to its credibility. . . . The best way to get it moving would be to increase public awareness, speak with Senator Folmer, the originator of the bill, and get him to speak with his colleagues. I will speak with my colleague, minority chairman of the State Senate Committee, Senator Mike Smith.”

 
Senator Andrew Dinniman

Senator Andrew Dinniman

Senator Andrew Dinniman, another member of the State Government Committee, co-sponsor of SB 195 and Democrat from Senate District 19 in Montgomery County had this to say:

No one will give up power willingly. It is in the interests of both parties to keep the status quo and they don’t want to give up the advantage.Opening up this process is what democracy should be all about. It is going to take the public to put pressure on the Pennsylvania legislature and allow diversity of public dialog, but if one looks at the growing number of registered independents that time is now. It is not a fair system. A fundamental reason the two legacy parties have come to a stalemate and the public is increasingly finding it unacceptable is that partisan politics have been thrust ahead of public interests. Ultimately the decision lies with the Republican leadership, Senators Smucker, Scarnati, and Pileggi, and whether they will allow this bill to see the light of day and allow it to come to the House floor for a vote.

Senator Dinniman closed our conversation with a quote from Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

 
Senator Rob Teplitz

Senator Rob Teplitz

Senator Rob Teplitz, a Democrat from the Harrisburg area and another co-sponsor of the bill had similar thoughts. “Ultimately that decision lies with Senator Smucker. I get the sense in general that government reform is not on the priority list. We are asking incumbents to vote against their self-interests and have to convince them that it is for the greater good to do the right thing.” “Democracy in Pennsylvania is in distress.  Voters are turned off and turnout is low.  The Voters’ Choice Act has the potential to empower the electorate, encourage more candidates and give the voters a reason to go to the polls,” said Jay Sweeney, current Green Party Chair.

 
Senator Mike Folmer

Senator Mike Folmer

Senator Mike Folmer, who introduced SB 195 this legislative session, pledged to “continue to speak with leadership” and is passionate about this issue. “There is resistance. We need to educate, educate, educate — stay focused on message.” Folmer has been requesting a public hearing. “This is the right thing to do. I encourage people to request a public hearing on this matter from their representatives.”

 
Senator Jim Ferlo

Senator Jim Ferlo

Senator Jim Ferlo, Pittsburgh Democrat and co-sponsor, observed, “Power cedes little. Ultimately we do not get to control the agenda, but on this bill, even if the Democrats were in control, I am not sure if you would see a vote on it, at least not yet. Too many are locked into the prescription of the two-party system. What [SB 195] needs is public awareness, a public hearing. Senator Smucker needs to call for a televised public hearing on this.”

 
Senator Mike Brubaker

Senator Mike Brubaker

Senator Mike Brubaker, a Republican from the Lancaster area and member of the State Government Committee issued this statement: “I believe that we need to level the playing field with regard to our electoral process in an effort to attract more candidates to office. That’s why I am favorably inclined to support Senator Folmer’s ‘Voters’ Choice Act’ should it come before me for a vote in the Senate State Government Committee. Such a proposal could foster voter participation and ultimately better government.” The Gazette contacted all state senators and the consensus was clear: if this bill were brought up for a vote it would be passed overwhelmingly. No senator would want to be on record denying equal access to the ballot . . . so the reason why SB 195 is not being considered in the State Government Committee, Chaired by Republican senator Lloyd Smucker? What this communicates to the Gazette is an attitude of “damn the Constitution, damn the oath defending the Constitution, and damn the people.” “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  —Martin Luther King Jr.

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