On December 13, 2004, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell signed Executive Order 2004-11 calling for the creation of the Governor's Election Reform Task Force, charging its members to "examine the way we run our elections, one of the most important functions of Government, and determine where improvements and adjustments can be made."
The Task Force was composed of thirteen prominent Pennsylvanians from all walks of political life, including the Secretary of the Commonwealth, a former state Supreme Court Justice, a former Commonwealth Court judge, a sitting State Representative and County Commissioner, two county-level elections officials, several lawyers, plus representatives from the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, and the County Commissioners Association. Among other goals, the Task Force was given the assignment to "examine options and make recommendations to increase voter participation." As one of the possibilities to achieve this objective, the Task Force explored the relationship between fair ballot access and voter turnout.
After hearing extensive testimony from members of the public and the Pennsylvania Ballot Access Coalition, followed by detailed discussions among themselves, the Task Force made a formal recommendation to Governor Rendell and the Legislature that Pennsylvania's election laws "be amended to provide greater access to the ballot for minor political parties and political bodies." The final vote on the recommendation was twelve in favor and none against, with one abstention.
This balanced panel of experts from across the political spectrum was virtually unanimous in their opinion that the current ballot access laws do injury to the voters by depriving them of choice on Election Day and reducing the electoral competition that is crucial to a healthy political system. When the Pennsylvania Legislature puts the Task Force's recommendation into action, it will benefit all voters by giving independent and minor party candidates the same fair and equal access to the ballot that only major party candidates currently enjoy.
During the Task Force's deliberations, Barry Kauffman, a Task Force member representing Common Cause of Pennsylvania, stressed the importance of fair ballot access laws.
"Obviously the purpose for having elections is, number one, for us to select leaders who we think represent, from our perspective, the best interest of our state and country; and number two, to hold those officials accountable. In situations where you don't have competitive elections, that can't be done. That cannot be achieved."
The impact that these uncompetitive elections have on voters' choices is plain. Mr. Kauffman went on to explain how:
"In 2004, 40 percent of the members of the House had a free ride, with nobody opposing either primary or general election. And in the House, I think there were 10 additional people who... did not have general election opposition. I think part of that may be due to the fact that there is an onerous burden on third parties who can't join the discussion at election time and hold our public officials accountable."
Another member of the Task Force, Dr. Daniel Shea, a professor of political science from Allegheny University, followed up along the same theme when he put the following question to Kevin Murphy, co- Chairman of the Delaware County Green Party, and one of the Green Party representatives to the PBAC:
"Do you suppose there aren't as many Green Party registrants because the Green Party has a tough time getting on the ballot, and that there might be more Green Party registrants if they had a chance to win an election other than write in?"
Mr. Murphy's common-sense response:
Dr. Shea then went on to discuss the strong relationship between fair ballot access and voter participation, especially among the young voters:
"I think ballot access is a really big deal. If you look at the turnout... states that have easier ballot access tend to have a higher turnout. Participation really comes after. We have to focus our attention to ballot access. It also connects to trust in the system, belief and efficacy; that you are a player in the system. Minor parties also very often innovate and push the two major parties to be more out front on big issues. And finally, the young voters overwhelmingly... are the ones that are anxious for alternatives. Some polls suggest as much as 40 percent would like to have minor parties. We are often stymied there because of ballot access. It is a big deal and I am glad we are confronting it."
Dr. Shea was not alone. Tellingly, former Commonwealth Court Justice Robert Byer also embraced the concept of providing greater access to the ballot for minor political parties. No stranger to the legal wrangling that can ensue from ballot access hurdles, in his testimony Justice Byer reacted strongly to several of the negative aspects surrounding the effort to have Ralph Nader removed from the ballot, then stressed,
"That said, I do believe that ballot access requirements ought to be made easier. I think that it would achieve the goal of creating more interest in the election, and for that reason I support the motion [to provide greater access to the ballot for minor political parties]."
Showing a bit of the seamier side of the existing ballot access laws, Mr. Joseph Passarella, Director of Voter Services for Montgomery County, shared a few of his personal experiences. He pointed out that third parties and independent candidates are not the only ones who are adversely impacted and victimized:
"They come after the Independent or the Libertarian or the minor political parties to keep them off the ballot... I am in court every primary with Republicans against Republicans and Democrats against Democrats far more often than we ever are for the minor political parties to get them removed from the ballot... If someone ... didn't do the paperwork correctly,... then someone more than likely is going to file a challenge to get that person removed from the ballot. It doesn't matter what party you are or anything else. It can be your neighbor down the street you have known for 20 years."
In 2004, not only was Ralph Nader victimized, but also several of "your neighbors down the street". One of them was Libertarian Barry Dively, running for state representative in Harrisburg, who was thrown off the ballot for reasons similar to the case of Mr. Nader. Another was Green candidate Dorothy Schreiber whose supporters were denied their chance to elect her to the state Legislature. Too many similar stories exist, both recent and historical. The result is always fewer candidates on the ballot, fewer choices, and fewer reasons for the voters to trouble themselves to come out and vote.
In the end, when thirteen prominent citizens took a long and hard look at the current ballot access laws in Pennsylvania, the consensus was more than clear. When the final vote was taken, the Governor's Election Reform Task Force voted 12-0 (with one abstention) that the election laws "be amended to provide greater access to the ballot for minor political parties and political bodies". Mr. Kauffman summed up the sentiment of the Task Force with the observation:
"I think it is time to have equal and fair standards for all candidates."
The swift and decisive action by the Task Force in voting so overwhelmingly that the Legislature amend the ballot access laws in Pennsylvania represents a solid first step toward making running for office more equitable for independent and minor party candidates, as well as expanding the democratic process for all the citizens of the Commonwealth. The next step is now up to the Pennsylvania Legislature.