Crashing the parties

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Ralph Nader File

The "two-party tyranny" Ralph Nader once decried in a speech in Philadelphia remains a reality in Pennsylvania - and a fantasy in the city where he spoke, whose creaky Democratic machine rules unchallenged. The Founding Fathers, who often fretted about political factions, would rue what the major parties have wrought in the birthplace of America's democracy.

Fortunately, the federal courts have finally taken aim at one egregious aspect of the two-party stranglehold in Pennsylvania: the absurd procedural and monetary barriers preventing third-party candidates from even appearing on the ballot. U.S. District Judge Lawrence Stengel ruled last week that by requiring minor-party candidates to collect far more signatures than Democrats and Republicans, and to defend them in court at often prohibitive costs, Pennsylvania's election laws violate the First Amendment right to free association.

Like much of its election law and practice, Pennsylvania's posture toward minor parties is staunchly antidemocratic. While Republicans and Democrats need only 2,000 voters' signatures to appear on statewide primary ballots, third-party candidates must collect the equivalent of 2 percent of the last statewide general election vote to appear on the fall ballot. In recent years, that figure has ranged from 16,000 to 67,000.

Moreover, Pennsylvania is the only state where the signatures must be verified by judges. That has allowed the major parties to mount costly legal challenges to any candidate who dares challenge their duopoly - at times aided, as an attorney general's investigation revealed, by state employees illegally doing campaign work. The commonwealth's politically co-opted judiciary has compounded the injustice by piling on stiff financial penalties.

In 2004, state Democrats running interference for John Kerry's presidential campaign forced Nader's independent ticket off the Pennsylvania ballot, and the Commonwealth Court found Nader responsible for more than $80,000 in legal costs. In 2006, Democrats reprised the dirty trick to protect Bob Casey's U.S. Senate run from the minor threat of the Green Party's Carl Romanelli, who was assessed a similar legal bill.

As a result, Pennsylvania last year was one of only four states with no third-party candidates on the statewide ballot. The state's stance on minor parties, Nader told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is "completely the worst: the worst laws, the worst partisan judges."

Stengel's ruling was in response to a lawsuit brought against the state by the Green, Libertarian, and Constitution Parties. Rather than challenging the result, the Wolf administration should work with the legislature to change the law. The goal must be to give all candidates equitable opportunities to run for office by eliminating unreasonable requirements and financial penalties. The task of verifying candidate petitions, meanwhile, must be taken out of the courts and handled administratively, as it is in other states.

Will allowing other parties onto the ballot usher in the Constitution Party's rise to electoral dominance? Of course not. The minor parties have at best a minor impact on major-party candidates, even when they are allowed to compete - which makes it that much more disturbing that Pennsylvania Democrats and Republicans, abetted by the courts, have gone to such lengths to exclude them.