PA Election Code Unfairly Discriminates in Favor of Established Party Candidates, ACLU Charges

August 24, 2001 12:00 am

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PITTSBURGH–Attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania today filed a federal civil rights lawsuit charging that the state applies unequal candidate-disqualification criteria that unfairly burden small political parties and independent third-party candidates.

At issue is a Pennsylvania Election Code provision that allows the Democratic, Republican and Green parties to nominate school board, common pleas judge, and district justice candidates regardless of which party they belong to, but prohibits new political bodies and independent candidates from running unless they are registered “”Independent.””

“”Pennsylvania may impose reasonable rules to control ballot access,”” said Jon Pushinsky, an ACLU cooperating attorney handling the case. “”But they may not adopt rules that favor established parties over newer and smaller political associations.””

The ACLU filed the case on behalf of Mary Beth Girardi and Charles A. Pascal and a political association they established called The Public Interest in order to advance Pascal as an alternate candidate in a local election for school board director. They have asked the court to rule on the challenge before mid-September, when the ballots must go to print.

Witold “”Vic”” Walczak, the Pittsburgh ACLU director and Pushinsky’s co-counsel in the case, expressed concern about Pennsylvania’s approach to elections. “”After the 2000 Presidential election mess, people are clamoring for a more open, responsive and accountable electoral process. The Commonwealth should not be making it harder for people who want to run outside the established party system to get on the ballot. Let the voters decide!””

The case arose after the May 15 primary election for Leechburg Area School District board director, which resulted in both the Democratic and Republican parties nominating a candidate who was recently charged with stealing jewelry from elderly women’s homes. Girardi, who was one of the candidate’s victims, decided to advance an alternate to run in the general election. She convinced acting school board president “”Chuck”” Pascal to run.

Pascal, who is currently a Pitt Law School student, had decided not to seek re-election after 14 years on the board. But given the circumstances — and Girardi’s concern about the major parties’ nominee — Pascal agreed to run.

“”When I looked for an alternative, I wanted someone who was well qualified and would be dedicated to the job,”” Girardi said. “”I’m a Republican and Chuck Pascal may be a Democrat, but he was the best possible candidate and if I and other voters want to organize a campaign to elect him, why shouldn’t we be able to do so?””

Girardi, Pascal and other registered voters in the district circulated nomination papers and gathered almost twice the number of signatures required by the County and the Pennsylvania Election Code to earn a place on the November ballot.

In late July, however, Armstrong County rejected Pascal because he is a registered Democrat. The County cited a Pennsylvania Election Code provision that requires candidates who wish to run for newer or smaller political bodies to disaffiliate from any party thirty days before the primary.

On the other hand, in contests for common pleas judge, district justice and school board director, Pennsylvania permits major parties to cross-file for election. Accordingly, Democrats can run as Democrats and Republicans, or even just as Republicans, and vice-versa.

Pennsylvania also allows “”minor political parties”” (those that received 2 percent of the winning candidates’ total in a preceding state-wide election) to nominate any voter, regardless of party affiliation. This year, only the Green Party qualifies as a minor political party.

Any other political association can only nominate a candidate who was registered Independent at least 30 days before the election. In the Leechburg Area School District, that amounts to just 7.2 percent of registered voters.

Candidate Pascal noted that he was flattered to be asked by so many people to run and pointed out the irony of the situation: “”As a registered Democrat, I could have run as a Democrat, a Republican or a Green. So why can’t I run as the Public Interest candidate as long as enough people support me? It just makes no sense.””

In legal papers, the ACLU argues that applying a different and more burdensome candidate-disqualification standards to newer and smaller political organizations violates the Constitution’s equal protection free association guarantees.

A 1999 federal appeals court decision involving Allegheny County and the Reform Party declared Pennsylvania’s ban on “”minor political parties”” running major party candidates in school board elections to be unconstitutional discrimination.

The case is The Public Interest v. Armstrong County Board of Election, filed in U. S. District Court in Pittsburgh.

The complaint is online at

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