Pennsylvania’s Undemocratic Democracy

Candidates frequently get tossed from the ballot before voters have a say. There's got to be a better way.


Corbett photo | Jeff Fusco

Guzzardi (left) and Corbett. Corbett photo | Jeff Fusco

Let’s first of all make an admission: Bob Guzzardi is kind of a weird dude. He’s not the kind of man you really want to be the governor of Pennsylvania unless you, too, are a bit weird. And in fact: There was no way he was ever going to be the governor of this great state. His candidacy was the reason the word “quixotic” was invented.

But I do wish he was on the GOP primary ballot against Tom Corbett later this month.

That’s not going to happen, however: Guzzardi was tossed from the ballot Thursday by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for not having all his financial disclosure forms filed with all the right agencies. It appears that Guzzardi made an honest (if rookie) mistake: He’d been told by an employee of one agency that he didn’t have to file his disclosure with another — a bad piece of advice that put Guzzardi out of compliance with election law, and resulted in Thursday’s decision.

What happened to Guzzardi isn’t all that unusual. The weeks and months before elections in Pennsylvania are when many of the state’s most partisan lawyers earn their pay, looking for a reason — any reason — to keep political opponents off the ballot. It’s easier to win an election race, after all, if you don’t have any competition. It’s a period of time that amounts to a pre-primary primary, when many inexperienced candidates are wiped from the slate because they didn’t quite know how to get their candidacy in order.

And, well, fair enough: If you’re going to play ball, you better know — and be prepared to abide by — the rules.

But the practical outcome of those rules rigs the game in favor of party establishments and incumbent candidates. Getting on the ballot is no problem if you’re familiar with and know how to navigate the system; staying on the ballot is a bit trickier if you’re new to the process. (And though Republicans are offering the latest example of this, let’s just stipulate that Democrats are also guilty of this practice.)

The whole process seems just a touch un-democratic, doesn’t it?

The idea of elections, after all, is to pit candidate against candidate, ideas against ideas, so that voters can weigh which people and ideas they think are best suited to run our various levels of government. And yet every election season in Pennsylvania sees the ballots pruned of many candidates (and ideas) that might be worthy of consideration if only enough voters got to have a say, instead of the lawyers.

Guzzardi, for his part, seemed pretty Zen about his loss, saying: “”During the course of this campaign I have learned that I am not in control. I will find out what comes next for me. What happens is supposed to happen and there is something for me to learn.”

And, well, good for him. But voters shouldn’t be so sanguine about their own loss of control over Pennsylvania’s democratic machinery. We should be skeptical every time a candidate is tossed from the ballot before we’ve had the chance to hear them out.

Tom Corbett is terribly unpopular in Pennsylvania these days, poll after poll proves, but his path to re-election just got a little easier because he doesn’t have even a token challenger in the primary election. That wasn’t a choice the voters made. One wishes Pennsylvania’s democracy was just a bit more democratic.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.