Pa. Supreme Court puts Nader back on ballot But it isn't the end of the battle. Hearings must be held on allegations that his petition campaign was marred by fraud.

Posted: September 21, 2004

Ralph Nader is back on Pennsylvania's election ballot - for now.

In an order issued yesterday, the state Supreme Court reversed an August Commonwealth Court decision that had removed the independent candidate from the ballot on the grounds that he had sought election as a member of the Reform Party in Michigan and thus didn't meet Pennsylvania's definition of independent.

But the decision doesn't mark the end of Democratic-led efforts to remove from Nader from the ballot. The one-paragraph order directed the lower court to speedily conduct hearings on the allegations at the heart of the ballot battle: that Nader's nominating petitions were marred by widespread fraud and other improprieties.

The order also left the final shape of the ballot unclear even as a key deadline passed. Yesterday was the day counties were to begin mailing absentee ballots to overseas and military voters.

With a final ruling dependent on an exhaustive review of nearly 50,000 Nader petition signatures, state elections officials yesterday advised the county authorities who administer elections to mail out "write-in" ballots accompanied by a list of candidates, said Andrew Sislo, chief of staff for Pennsylvania's Department of State.

Sislo said the list would include Nader. But he said that in the event another court ruling changes Nader's ballot status, a second ballot would be mailed. If a second ballot is mailed, those who already voted with the first ballot would still have their votes counted - unless they voted again using the second ballot. In that case, he said, the voter's first ballot would be canceled.

"Obviously, it's an administrative headache," he said.

The next step in the legal challenge, meanwhile, will be an elaborate day of hearings in 10 venues across the state Monday to examine claims that up to 37,000 of 47,000 signatures submitted by Nader should be thrown out. Independents need 25,697 valid signatures to be on the ballot.

Samuel C. Stretton, an attorney for Nader, said Nader did not have enough lawyers at present to meet that schedule, but he said the campaign was "getting a team together." Commonwealth Court's scheduling order also requires counsel from both sides to be available at 48 county elections offices to examine petitions from 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily between now and the hearings.

Even with the uncertainty, Stretton exulted in a decision that campaign spokesman Kevin Zeese said made Pennsylvania the 38th state where Nader is on the ballot. A Friday court ruling in Florida and a Maryland ruling yesterday also put the candidate on those states' ballots.

"It's a big victory for democracy," Stretton said.

In Arkansas, however, a state judge yesterday ruled that Nader's name be removed from ballots in the state because his campaign did not meet the requirements in its petition to have his name listed.

Many Democrats see Nader as a spoiler, and they fear he could drain enough support from Sen. John Kerry to throw Pennsylvania's 21 electoral votes to President Bush.

Gregory M. Harvey, a lawyer and Democratic official who has worked on the petition challenge, predicted that the challenge would ultimately succeed.

"I am confident, absolutely, that he will not be on the ballot," Harvey said of Nader.

Besides the legal challenge, Nader's nominating-petition drive in Philadelphia was beset by complaints stemming from a decision to hire people to gather signatures for up to $1 a name. Inquirer reporters witnessed the circulators, many of them homeless, forging signatures and telling passersby they could sign with false names.

Nader's campaign has insisted it filed enough valid signatures. But at a Commonwealth Court hearing last month, Stretton acknowledged that of the 1,371 signatures reviewed by the campaign in the wake of the complaints, nearly three-quarters were invalid under existing standards.

Stretton called those standards too severe.

In a telephone interview yesterday, he said Nader's chances of making the ballot might depend on which standards the court uses.

"If they're going to be real strict on some of these issues - middle names, nicknames, if another person fills in someone's address - then we're out," he said. "But if they recognize that some of them are burdensome, then we've got a fighting chance."

Contact staff writer Michael Currie Schaffer at 215-854-4565 or mcschaffer@phillynews.com.

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