Inside Take: How the Philadelphia Nominating Petition Game Is Played

Adam Bonin: What to expect this year in the messy, adversarial world of qualifying for the Philly ballot.



(Editor’s note: This is an opinion column from a Citified insider.)

The fun started this morning.

For the next three weeks, volunteers and paid field staffers will be spanning our City to convince you to sign a nomination petition for their preferred candidates. Candidates for citywide office need 1,000 valid signatures from registered voters in their party to appear on the May 19 primary ballot (plus pay a nominal $100 filing fee); candidates for district Council races need 750.

Now, let’s unpack that a bit:

  1. To obtain 1,000 valid signatures, candidates in competitive races often need double or triple that number to be safe from having a rival challenge them in Court. Everything from signers misstating whether they’re registered voters, to one member of a household filling in information which each needed to provide in his or her own handwriting, to placing the ZIP Code where the date of signing belongs can render an otherwise valid signature invalid.
  2. It’s February. People aren’t exactly lazing about outdoors waiting for petition circulators to approach them. In many parts of the City, going door-to-door searching for members of your political party is not practical. Those who know how to reach large groups of eligible signers, such as ward leaders and political consultants, can charge a healthy premium to connect candidates with them.
  3. It is not illegal for a campaign to pay field workers per-signature, but it is dumb. Because this is the sort of thing you might end up with:

When you turn in your signatures, all election officials do with the signatures is confirm that you have enough to qualify for the ballot. Verifying that signatures have been signed in the manner the law strictly requires is left to the adversarial process.

For the week following the petition deadline, lawyers like me (and the people we train) will be scouring the submitted pages of our rivals, looking for errors substantive and trivial, trying to see if enough signatures can be struck to eliminate a rival from a race. Potential expert witnesses will be consulted, from handwriting authorities to private investigators to, in one case, a cartographer I hired to demonstrate the physical impossibility of a single petition circulator who allegedly gathered 426 signatures walking through the streets of West Oak Lane on a single frigid Tuesday.

These cases must be filed quickly and are heard quickly because of ballot printing deadlines. Sometimes, there’s a bit of drama. Perhaps a witness’ memories were affected by the Vicodin she had taken in the middle of her cross-examination (yes, this actually happened), or maybe there’ll be a relentless interrogation of a candidate’s nocturnal habits to challenge the contender’s residency. But most of these trials are instead filled with more prosaic events, such as the diligent City Commissioners’ staff carefully pulling up voter records, one at a time, to confirm a signer’s registration status.

[And even that process should be streamlined this year. President Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper is implementing new rules, based on an election task force on which I participate, which will require opposing parties to meet and confer before trial to reduce the number of lines requiring judicial review. Moreover, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has functionally banned the sort of ticky-tack challenges against candidates’ Statements of Financial Interests which tied down Bob Brady in 2007 and Seth Williams in 2009, but ultimately did not eliminate either candidate.]

So where can one expect to see challenges filed this year? Obviously, in the mayor’s race, every candidate will be rigorously reviewing his or her rivals’ submissions, though it’s hard to imagine any serious mayoral candidate having difficulty finishing well beyond the 1,000 required. The same is generally true of the statewide judicial candidates, though the additional requirement of demonstrating five counties with at least 100+ signatures can trip up candidates who lack broad support.

I also don’t anticipate there being real challenges in the Court of Common Pleas races. Despite the scores of candidates expected to file, the incentive simply isn’t there for any one candidate to eliminate any particular rival for the twelve openings, though one could see organized interests seeking to defend endorsed candidates by knocking off rivals en masse.

The real action will be lower on the ballot. Challengers to City Council incumbents should expect a thorough review of their submissions, because the easiest primaries to win are ones in which you run unopposed. The Council At-Large field will be a war zone, especially as candidates may try to eliminate rivals perceived as occupying the same political “space”. (One also must wonder if the same outside groups otherwise seeking to influence these races will enter the petition challenge arena as well, or if that terrain will be ceded to candidates.)

And there will be challenges in the City Commissioners races, because the universe is ironic and demands that at least one person campaigning to enforce the Election Code be accused of being unable to comply with it.

Should it be this way? There is a tenable argument that these laws serve legitimate interests, and that serious candidates should have no problem demonstrating a sufficient level of public support as well as fidelity to the law.

But it could be otherwise. Pennsylvania could cede signature review to election administrators, and not leave it to adversarial litigation, to remove gamesmanship from the process and the possibility of its being used in shakier cases as a weapon to intimidate resource-poor candidates. Or we could provide candidates with the option of paying a more significant fee to guarantee ballot access, taking the risk that the field advantage gained by rivals by going door-to-door and working with community leaders is not a durable one.

Until that happens, I’ll be advising my clients on how to gather signatures properly, and will be eager to see what their rivals present on March 10. All in the game.

Adam Bonin represents candidates seeking political office, including 2015 candidates for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the Court of Common Pleas, Mayor, and City Council. These views are his own.