Who really polices ballot access

    Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt has raised concerns about non-citizen voters in Pennsylvania. (Emma Lee/WHYY, file)

    Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt has raised concerns about non-citizen voters in Pennsylvania. (Emma Lee/WHYY, file)

    Last week Rob Bowers’ hopes to run as an independent for Philadelphia City Controller collapsed when election officials noticed a problem with his nominating petitions: Many were photocopied and submitted more than once to boost his numbers.

    “It was a shock,” said acting elections supervisor Kevin Kelly. “I mean, are you kidding me?”

    Kelly said he was doing a routine check to see if Bowers had the 4,070 signatures he needed, when he discovered pages that looked identical — a lot of them.

    Kelly said 13 pages were submitted, copied and resubmitted four more times as separate petitions — the loaves and fishes of ballot access.

    Kelly rejected the petitions on the basis that he didn’t have the requisite number of valid signatures.

    But it occurred to me when I read the story, reported by the Inquirer’s Chris Brennan, that it’s rare for elections officials to turn down nominating petitions that, on their face, seem to have enough signatures to meet the qualifications.

    And that tells us something about something about how qualifications for seeking office are enforced.

    The way it works

    To get on the ballot, you need a specific number of signatures from registered voters who live in the district where you’re running on notarized petitions.

    It’s a challenge, and candidates are known to cut corners.

    “You’ll very often see what we call ‘kitchen table jobs,'” said political consultant Joe Corrigan, “where someone sits with the voter file and forges signatures.”

    That’s against the law, and it’s often obvious when the handwriting on a page of signatures is the same.But such petitions will often be accepted by election officials.

    “When somebody turns in petitions, we don’t scrutinize signatures,” said Al Schmidt, co-chairman of the city commissioners, which runs elections in Philadelphia. 

    Shcmidt said the election code limits the commissioners’ role in challenging the validity of petitions to those with “fatal, facial defects,” such as petitions with an insufficient number signatures or petititions that are not notarized. It doesn’t provide for a review of individual signatures.

    Dozens, sometimes thousands, of sets of nominating petitions will come in over the course of a few days, he said.  (There are thousands of positions on local election boards.)

    Schmidt said his staff will typically review the petitions to make sure they appear to have the required number of signatures and that they’re notarized.

    That won’t catch a lot of cheating, but there’s another enforcer in the process.

    The hand of competition

    The really tough scrutiny on nominating petitions comes from rival candidates trying to knock an opponent off the ballot.

    They’ll spend hours, sometimes hire lawyers and investigators to check petitions, making sure they include only registered voters in the district, and that the signatures match the ones on voters’ registration applications.

    These can result in long, drawn-out court fights and, in the end, ensure that candidates who survive them have met the requirements of the state election code.

    “The city commissioners are really referees in the political competiton,” Schmidt said.

    Corrigan noted that you can have pretty sloppy petitions if you’re alone on the ballot.

    “Folks who run unopposed often aren’t looked at all,” he said.

    Bowers’ photocopied petitions were a glaring enough problem that Kelly caught it when he was going through to make sure Bowers had enough names on his sheets.

    “This is as lazy as it gets, but it isn’t as egregious as it gets,” Corrigan said. “I think forging someone else’s signature, from a moral standpoint, is probably a worse offense.”

    But again, it’s an offense that’s usually undetected on the submissions of unopposed candidates.

    So, to review: You’ll get caught fudging nominating petitions if (a) you have a sharp-eyed opponent or (b) if you go too far and photocopy your petitions.

    For the record, Bowers told the Inquirer he had a lot people circulating petitions and that he didn’t know anything was photocopied.

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