Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Russ Diamond: PA Supreme Court to Decide Fate of the World

When is an election not an election? What is a “qualified elector?”

These two simple questions may play a pivotal role in what some observers are calling the most important political race on the planet. The answers could very well be the difference in Pennsylvania’s US Senate race and the future of not just America, but the entire world.

Republican incumbent Rick Santorum has openly admitted aiding Green Party candidate Carl Romanelli in his Herculean effort to obtain ballot access. Democrats, fearing Romanelli’s presence will siphon potential votes from their candidate, Bob Casey, Jr., filed an objection to nearly 70,000 of the over 94,000 signatures Romanelli collected.

Since August 14, operatives from all three camps have been hunkered down in a dreary office at the Department of State in Harrisburg, comparing Romanelli’s petitions to records within the SURE database, the state’s new electronic voter registration system. The atmosphere in the room is thick with tension, and tempers at one point flared into a physical altercation.

But the entire tedious and time consuming effort may be rendered moot, depending on the state Supreme Court’s opinions on the two aforementioned questions. These are matters of “first impression,” as no Pennsylvania court has previously offered an opinion on either question.

On the first question, Romanelli attorney Lawrence M. Otter moved and argued in Commonwealth Court that the total number of signatures required to put Romanelli on the ballot should be based on Sandra Newman’s 2005 state Supreme Court retention rather than Casey’s 2004 victory in the state Treasurer’s race, effectively lowering the signature requirement from 67,070 to 15,949.

While the Democrats and the Department of State both maintain that a judicial retention is not an election per se, neither was able to refer to it without calling it a “retention election” in their arguments before President Judge James Gardner Colins. Colins denied Otter’s motion, but virtually welcomed an appeal by inferring in his opinion that the law is subject to a wide range of interpretations.

Otter’s appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was filed on August 28. If successful, the Democrats’ objection would be null and void, as they have essentially stipulated to nearly 25,000 of Romanelli’s signatures by not challenging them in their objection.

The second question could have even more far-reaching implications and would settle an argument which has been raging among the ballot access crowd for years. It is commonly held that individuals who sign or circulate nominating papers in Pennsylvania must be registered voters. However, both the preamble for signers and the circulator’s affidavit on such papers for minor party and independent candidates only requires those persons to be “qualified electors.”

Article VII, Section 1 of the Pennsylvania Constitution sets forth the “Qualifications of Electors” as being based on age, U.S. citizenship and residency. No mention is made of being a registered voter.

If the Court rules in favor of the plain language of the Constitution, not only would the current challenge to Romanelli be in serious jeopardy, but the ability of anyone to challenge a minor party or independent petition in the future would be severely hampered. Without the ability to rely on the statewide voter database - the SURE system - to validate signatures, how could a potential challenge even be formulated?

Future efforts by minor party and independent candidates to gather signatures to overcome Pennsylvania’s ballot access hurdles would be bolstered, adding the important element of competition to the electoral process. Those candidates would no longer need to worry over whether a signer has matched letter-for-letter their information on file with the Department of State.

The more immediate implications of these two questions, however, may be far greater. Santorum, if re-elected, could potentially become Senate Majority Leader or run for President of the United States. If Casey is elected, he would merely be Pennsylvania’s junior Senator aligned with that body’s minority party. While a Romanelli victory would be historic in its own right, his mere presence on the ballot will make this race a nail-biter.

The fate of the world could very well lie in the hands of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court, who have been under fire of late for allegedly not interpreting the state’s Constitution at face value. Every citizen should pay very close attention to the Court on these two questions.