ACLU Challenges Disqualification Of Central Falls Mayoral Candidate

September 18, 2009 12:00 am

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The Rhode Island ACLU has today filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Central Falls Mayoral candidate Hipolito Fontes, arguing that the local Board of Canvassers acted unconstitutionally in disqualifying him from the ballot earlier this month for allegedly failing to submit sufficient nomination signatures.

Fontes needed 200 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot, and he turned in 333 signatures. However, Central Falls allows voters to sign only one nomination paper per office, and in the case of multiple signatures, the Board of Canvassers accepts the one on the papers that were first filed with the Board. The Board of Canvassers disqualified 134 of Fontes’s signatures because they also appeared on current Mayor Charles Moreau’s signature petitions, and Moreau was deemed to have submitted his papers first – two minutes ahead of Fontes.

The lawsuit, filed by RI ACLU volunteer attorneys Armando Batastini and Timothy Baldwin from the law firm of Nixon Peabody, notes that candidates “have no way of knowing whether signatures on their nomination papers also appear on the nomination papers of other candidates for the same office” and that there is no legitimate governmental interest in distinguishing between first-filed nomination papers and later-filed nomination papers. The suit further alleges that the certification process was manipulated, as Mayor Moreau was allowed to enter the Board of Canvassers’ office before it opened so that his signatures would be counted first. The suit also claims that on several occasions Fontes observed campaign workers for Moreau following him as he collected signatures, and those workers asked voters who had just signed Fontes’s papers to also sign Moreau’s.

The lawsuit seeks a court order declaring unconstitutional the city charter provision that voids signatures submitted by candidates for the same political office based on the first-filed rule, and also seeks an order requiring the Board of Canvassers to place Fontes’s name on the ballot.

Fontes said today: “All I want is a fair shot. Voters deserve the right to a choice in this election, and that is all I am asking for.” RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown added: “For good reason, Rhode Island state law allows people to sign multiple nomination papers. What happened to Mr. Fontes demonstrates the wisdom of that law and the dubious outcomes that can flow from the rules that Central Falls has in place. We are hopeful that the court will recognize the unfairness of those rules and reinstate Mr. Fontes to the ballot.”

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