Third parties call for ballot access relief
PITTSBURGH – Much of politics is based on personal interactions, but in the midst of a global pandemic, such interactions can be potentially deadly. The COVID-19 outbreak has left third parties in Pennsylvania out in the cold, concerned that they may not be able to get on the ballot for key races in November due to an inability to collect signatures.
"People aren't willing to take a pen, or a piece of paper" from a petitioner, national Libertarian Party executive director Daniel Fishman said. Additionally, Gov. Tom Wolf's stay-at-home orders — extended to all 67 of Pennsylvania's counties on Wednesday — have blocked petitioners from attending now-canceled public events or going door-to-door.
Pittsburgh Post Gazette
By Kyle Mullins
April 7, 2020
In response, both the national Libertarian Party and the Green Party of Pennsylvania have called on Mr. Wolf and the state Legislature to waive the petitioning requirements.
The Green Party of Pennsylvania attached a letter that was sent to "Governor Wolf and legislative leaders" last week. In it, they cite their previous successful attempts to gain ballot access in Pennsylvania in 2016 and 2018. "We are therefore confident we would be successful again and qualify for ballot access for all Green Party candidates in 2020 — were it not for the urgent, severe threat posed by COVID-19 this year that has made typical petitioning operations impossible," the letter reads.
The Libertarian Party also cited its success in gaining ballot access in previous election cycles, including 2016, when it was the only party other than the Republicans and Democrats on the ballot in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. "This year in the interest of Public Health, The Libertarian Party calls on the Governors of all 50 states to waive all petitioning requirements in 2020," the release reads.
The Pennsylvania Department of State said in a statement that they had "received a request … to waive ballot-access signature requirements for its candidates given the COVID-19 crisis" from the Green Party of Pennsylvania. The State Department made no mention of the Libertarian Party in its statement, and said it was evaluating the Green Party's request. The governor's office did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
Third-party candidates operate under different rules than the two major parties when it comes to gaining access to the ballot. Often, they must submit more than double the number of signatures to get on the general election ballot as the two main parties' candidates do to get on primary ballots. For example, Republicans and Democrats congressional candidates must submit 1,000 signatures to run for Congress, whereas third-party candidates must submit signatures equaling 2% of the highest number of votes in the previous election, which ranges from 1,800 in District 12 to 5,753 in District 3.
To run for attorney general, third parties must submit 2,500 signatures, including 250 from at least five counties, whereas the two major parties must submit 1,000 signatures, including 100 from at least five counties.
On the other hand, the two major parties have less than a month to collect their signatures — this year, from Jan. 28 to Feb. 18 — whereas the minor parties have from Feb. 19 to Aug. 3. This is so that the major parties can hold their primaries in the spring. This year, the major parties' timeline fell before many of the restrictions from the COVID-19 outbreak. The timeline for the third parties did not.
Chris Robinson, communications team leader for the Greens of Pennsylvania, said in Philadelphia, where he is based, the waterfront events that happen "every weekend" are shut down due to the pandemic. Concerts, sports games and other mass gatherings are also shut down due to public health concerns. "It's just hard to find people," Mr. Robinson said.
A secondary tactic, door-knocking, is also made difficult due to the governor's stay-at-home order. Neither party wants to put their staff or members of the public at risk by going door-to-door. Mr. Robinson said that allowing the online collection of signature forms, as has been instituted in states like Utah and New Jersey, would be an acceptable "middle ground" for them. The national Libertarian party's statement and Mr. Fishman pushed back on this proposition, however, calling it a "poll tax" because it requires access to a computer, printer and scanner. "The promise of America is that anybody can run for office," Mr. Fishman said.
Regardless of what changes may be made, both parties emphasized the need for rapid action on the part of the governor or state Legislature. Mr. Fishman suggested that action by the governor may be "most expeditious," as "most state Legislatures haven't figured out how they're going to meet in the corona era."
Mr. Robinson also emphasized the PA Green Party's support for the public health measures put in place by the state government. Nonetheless, he said, it's important that the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus doesn't unfairly impact elections. "Nobody's sure if this thing will be over by November," Mr. Robinson pointed out.