Ballot access on the docket as courts consider what’s next for Pennsylvania’s maps

‘Our candidates are ready to hit the ground running,’ Democratic consultant Marty Santalucia told the Capital-Star. ‘We’re waiting for the starting pistol’

By: - February 16, 2022 5:26 pm

Voters line up at a polling place on Election Day. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

A Wolf administration proposal to trim the spring petitioning period for political campaigns by seven to 12 days could pose a new challenge for upstart candidates looking to get on the May 17 primary ballot. 

Thanks to Census delays and partisan infighting, Pennsylvania still does not have finished congressional or state legislative maps.

This has rendered useless the timeline for candidates to get on the ballot for the primary, which is dictated by statute.

State Supreme Court rulings will likely cut through this knot of uncertainty. But until the high court’s decisions drop, most of the state’s political hopefuls are on standby.

“Our candidates are ready to hit the ground running,” Democratic political consultant Marty Santalucia told the Capital-Star. “We’re waiting for the starting pistol.”

One of the most pressing questions — how long candidates will have to gather the signatures they need to qualify for the primary ballot — could be answered on Friday, when the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case to pick the state’s congressional map.

Under state law, candidates for office normally have three weeks to get registered voters to sign their petitions to get on the ballot. The signature threshold varies, ranging from 2,000 signatures for U.S. Senate and gubernatorial candidates to 300 for state representatives.

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But the high court paused this process for all candidates last week because of the map delays.

In a Monday court filing in the case, the Department of State, which oversees elections across the state, argued that the timeline for signatures must be condensed to avoid moving the primary, now scheduled for May 17. 

A judicial order moving this election back, the department argued, would likely be challenged for violating the U.S. Constitution. 

Regardless of the outcome of such a lawsuit, more legal action “would inject uncertainty into an election cycle that is already quite challenging for both election administrators and candidates,” the department said.

Their concern isn’t unfounded. 

A motion to intervene in the redistricting case filed by Republican lieutenant governor hopeful Teddy Daniels last week has already laid out a similar argument.

Daniels, of Wayne County, will need 1,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot. According to the filing from last week, he has “hundreds of volunteers” ready to assist in gathering the needed signatures, but the court’s order had left those plans in “disarray.”

“Even a modestly truncated campaign schedule will adversely affect Mr. Daniels because, in a competitive primary, such as that for the 2022 Republican lieutenant governor nomination, each day counts,” the filing reads.

He also argued that the court’s actions overall were in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Election Clause, and that instead the state should follow an obscure 1941 federal statute and hold 17 at-large congressional elections until the Legislature and governor can agree on a new map. 

This matches what the Republican-controlled General Assembly has argued should happen after GOP leaders balked at moving the primary date themselves.

With this legal concern in mind, the Department of State suggested that the high court give statewide and congressional candidates two weeks to get on the ballot once final maps are approved, from March 1 to March 15. This matches a lower court judge’s suggestions for petitions. 

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The state legislative maps likely wouldn’t be litigated and implemented until sometime in March, the department added. So state House and Senate candidates would only get nine days, from March 20 to 29, to collect signatures.

Additionally, the department asked for the court to give less time to knock candidates off the ballot, which “is necessary and appropriate to ensure that ballots can be finalized in time for counties to send mail-in and absentee ballots to voters.”

These scrunched deadlines are par for the course for candidates who have waited weeks just to get a glimpse of the districts they are running in, many candidates noted.

“Given the uncertainty that has come with redistricting this year, a shortened window for petitioning is par for the course,” Democratic state House candidate Heather MacDonald told the Capital-Star in a statement.

MacDonald is running against Dauphin County Democratic state Rep. Patty Kim in a redrawn district that includes parts of Harrisburg and its Cumberland County suburbs. 

MacDonald added that she’s “just excited to continue to do the work no matter what timeline we’re given.”

But others in both parties raised concerns. Logan Hoover, a 21-year-old Republican running in a five-way race to replace retiring state Rep. Dave Hickernell, R-Lancaster, said the condensed timeline could be “hurtful” for voters struggling to make up their minds about a crowded field.

“Certainly, it doesn’t give very much opportunity for new people to get signatures,” Hoover told the Capital-Star. “I’ve been in the political realm for a little bit, but not near enough that going down to nine days wouldn’t be an unfair challenge to the race.”

But with a strong base in his home of Elizabethtown, a fresh perspective, and a burgeoning TikTok following, he’s still hopeful he can break through to become be a front-runner in the race.

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In a statement, Pittsburgh Democratic state House candidate La’Tasha Mayes added that “rushing the democratic process because lawmakers couldn’t come to a consensus regarding redistricting only serves to benefit those who currently hold political power.”

Mayes is running for Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey’s old seat, a race made even more complicated by a concurrent special election that’ll be held under the old district lines. A different candidate won the party’s endorsement for that race, though Mayes is still running to win a full two-year term.

A shorter petition period will hinder free and fair elections, Mayes added, “and it is impractical for campaigns, elections staff, and most importantly, community members, to be pushed into a two-week petitioning period.”

Not everyone is sympathetic, however. Susan Spicka, an education advocate, originally planned to run for state Senate in 2012 as a Democrat in central Pennsylvania.

However, the state Supreme Court tossed out the initial lines in the middle of her campaign, shifting her to another district. So, she pivoted to run for state House.

Despite running in an area where registered Democrats can be scarce, she said she collected 879 signatures for her new run — almost triple what she needed.

Collecting signatures may be a frenzy, but it’s a key challenge that shows the mettle of a campaign to run and win, Spicka contended.

 And if she did it on short notice in central Pennsylvania, Spicka doesn’t see what the issue will be for, say, a Democrat with advanced notice of the shift running in a big city.

“If candidates are incapable of doing that, they are not going to be capable of running a strong campaign,” Spicka told the Capital-Star of her experience. “People need to stop whining.”

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.