Heavy costs of a run by a third party in Pa. But 2 challenges are part of the Bonusgate probe.

Posted: January 28, 2009

If you want to run for public office in Pennsylvania, and you're neither a Republican nor a Democrat, you'd better be prepared to bet the farm. Carl Romanelli learned that lesson the hard way after campaigning for U.S. Senate on the Green Party ticket in 2006.

After a successful challenge to his nomination petitions by Democrats, represented by Thorp, Reed & Armstrong, the Commonwealth Court in Harrisburg charged Romanelli with more than $80,000 in litigation costs. Romanelli, a retired family court officer, says that would "destroy" him financially.

Romanelli's is only the second candidacy in U.S. history to be hit with such costs. My 2004 presidential candidacy was the first. Represented by Reed Smith, Democrats successfully challenged my nomination petitions, and the Commonwealth Court ordered us to pick up the legal bill - once again, more than $80,000.

Both petition challenges are now under investigation by state Attorney General Tom Corbett, who is looking into the alleged misuse of taxpayer funds and resources for this kind of political work. The scandal is known as "Bonusgate" because state employees allegedly received taxpayer-funded bonuses for preparing the challenges. Corbett has already filed charges against 10 employees and two members of the Pennsylvania House Democratic Caucus, and more arrests are expected.

But while Corbett's criminal prosecution takes a big step toward cleaning up corruption in Harrisburg, it won't restore even a semblance of competitive democracy to Pennsylvania. Fortunately, State Sen. Mike Folmer (R., Lebanon) is expected to introduce a bill, known as the Voter Choice Act, that would provide the needed reforms.

In the 19th century, voters could choose from a wide array of candidates representing a broad spectrum of agendas. That was before Pennsylvania and many other states enacted unnecessarily restrictive ballot-access laws, requiring minor-party and independent candidates to submit nomination petitions with tens of thousands of signatures.

Minor-party candidates were the first to run in support of abolition, women's suffrage, labor rights and farmers' rights. Major-party candidates eventually adopted these "radical" positions, but only after voters expressed support for them through other parties. The right of minor-party candidates to appear on the ballot thus reinforced the voter's right to competitive elections with genuine choices.

Pennsylvania's electoral process, by contrast, has become a members-only club, with Republicans and Democrats guarding the door. In the Bonusgate proceedings, House Democratic Caucus employees testified under oath that they routinely used petition challenges to knock candidates off the ballot without regard for their qualifications.

In 2004, for example, Democrats challenged the Nader-Camejo ticket for the benefit of John Kerry. In 2006, they challenged Romanelli to help Bob Casey win a U.S. Senate seat. Both challenges, a grand jury found, were brought with a goal of "winnowing . . . the Election Day field."

These anti-democratic, exclusionary exercises attained an aura of legitimacy through unfounded allegations of "fraud." For example, pranksters or saboteurs planted a handful of signatures from the likes of Mickey Mouse and Fred Flintstone among thousands of genuine signatures on Nader-Camejo petitions. That led a compliant judge to conclude - contrary to his own factual findings - that entire petitions were fraudulent.

Romanelli suffered a similar fate. The court found he had submitted more than 58,000 valid signatures, but it accused him of "bad faith" because he couldn't afford an army of attorneys to defend his petitions.

Similar abuses of the petition-challenge process occur in other states. Pennsylvania is unique, however, in requiring defending candidates to pay their challengers' court costs.

These judgments, as Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Thomas Saylor noted in a dissenting opinion, are not authorized by Pennsylvania's election code. Moreover, they are "most certainly unconstitutional," according to Capital University Law Professor Mark R. Brown, because they violate U.S. Supreme Court decisions striking down excessive filing fees, poll taxes, and other state-imposed financial burdens on candidates and voters.

How ironic that courts in the birthplace of America have begun to render judgments straight out of the Jim Crow South.

Commonwealth Court remains undeterred. On Friday, it ordered Romanelli to pay its punitive, unlawful judgment within 10 days. As a result, he could lose house and home to people who may be implicated in the continuing criminal prosecution.

Folmer's legislation would lower Pennsylvania's draconian barriers to ballot access, dismantling a major-party blockade on political competition. Reform is the word of the day in Harrisburg now that the attorney general is investigating, and this legislation would translate that talk into action. For people like Carl Romanelli, that can't happen soon enough.

Ralph Nader ran for president as an independent in 2008.

Ralph Nader can be contacted at P.O. Box 19312, Washington, DC 20036.

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