Billy Penn in Harrisburg

How candidates get on the ballot in PA — and how they get kicked off

Petition challenges can be pricey, but they usually cost less than a bruising primary fight.

Want to win a seat inside the General Assembly? First, you have to collect enough valid signatures.

Want to win a seat inside the General Assembly? First, you have to collect enough valid signatures.

Sarah Anne Hughes / Billy Penn illustration
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HARRISBURG, Pa. — Garret Wassermann is a Green Party member running for Pa. state representative.

That doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be on the ballot in November.

To get there, Wassermann needs to collect at least 599 valid signatures from registered voters in his Allegheny County district by Aug. 1. That’s nearly double what Democrats and Republicans running for state House need to collect from members of their own party.

Why 599? For a state representative, Pennsylvania’s election code says a minor party candidate must get signatures equal to 2 percent of the winner’s total in the last election for the seat.

A version of that 2-percent rule no longer applies to many statewide third-party and independent candidates. Because of a lawsuit brought by the state Constitution, Libertarian, and Green parties, would-be third-party senators, governors, and presidents need just 5,000 signatures to get on the ballot.

But the ruling doesn’t apply to General Assembly races, something Wassermann said he finds unfair.

As of Thursday, Wassermann said he was about halfway to his goal and was “a little bit” optimistic he could reach it. He and other volunteers made a push for signatures last weekend so Wassermann and fellow Allegheny County Green Jay Walker can face Democrats Anita Astorino Kulik and Dan Frankel this fall.

In the life cycle of an election year, campaigns are birthed and campaigns die. Members of Pennsylvania’s two major political parties begin collecting signatures in the cold of February, battle their own in the spring, then meet each other in the fall. Independents and third-party candidates begin collecting signatures the day after Democrats and Republicans stop and work into the dog days of summer for a chance at November.

In spite of a candidate’s best efforts, some won’t collect enough signatures to get on the ballot. And because of someone else’s best efforts, others will get kicked off.

How to get on a ballot

Lawrence Otter is a former senior deputy in the Office of Attorney General who now specializes in election law. (Remember when a college student tried to kick John Kasich off the ballot? Yeah, his case.) He’s also been a candidate for office a few times and a campaign volunteer.

He remembers collecting signatures for the elder Bob Casey in the ‘90s on a February day so cold his pen froze. “You have to have some dedication to the process to do this,” he said.

Otter represents candidates whose petition signatures are being challenged, as well as people challenging petition signatures. Over the last 12 years, he’s discovered that when campaigns don’t use a basic voter list with addresses to get signatures, “there’s at least a 30 percent error rate.”

He doesn’t use the term fraud when discussing petitions, because it’s such an anomaly. Sure, he can tell you about a case in Philly “where it was painfully obvious that the same person went to a phone book and wrote in the name and addresses.”

But most of the time, the disqualifying errors are something simple, like someone writing their zip code in the area where the date is supposed to be.

Otter said even a half-hour’s worth of training can greatly increase a campaign’s chances of getting usable signatures. He also finds it’s better for smaller campaigns to use volunteers, as opposed to a company that will send people out to find signatures for cash.

“This isn’t rocket science,” he said, “but people make a lot of mistakes.”

Signature requirements for PA candidates

 Democrats and Republicans Third-party and independents
Governor2,000; at least 100 signatures from at least 10 counties5,000
Lt. Governor1,000; at least 100 signatures from at least 5 counties2,500
Senate2,0005,000
Congress1,0002 percent "of the largest entire vote cast for any officer" elected in the last election in the district; at least 1,000
PA Senate5002 percent "of the largest entire vote cast for any officer" elected in the last election in the district; at least 500
PA House3002 percent "of the largest entire vote cast for any officer" elected in the last election in the district; at least 300

For a well-oiled party campaign, getting a couple hundred valid signatures can be a breeze. But for candidates like Wassermann, who usually have a steeper signature goal, it can be challenging.

In Wassermann’s suburban district, he has at times found it difficult to reach people. In some areas, there aren’t even sidewalks. It’s also been tough to find the right events for volunteers to target.

But when they do ask someone to sign, nine out of 10 interactions are positive, he said. That included Democrats and Republicans who Wassermann approached on primary day.

“They completely agreed,” he said, “that having more people on the ballot is a good thing for democracy.”

While Wassermann needs just under 600 signatures, he’s aiming for more. That’s because he knows — as most candidates should — that when a political opponent sees a minimum amount of signatures, they also see an opportunity.

How to kick someone off

Michelle Dresbold has worked on murder cases, fielded questions from people worried they’re related to the Zodiac Killer, and written a book on how to decode penmanship.

But the Pittsburgh-based handwriting expert also lends her prowess to General Assembly candidates in Pennsylvania as they try to knock their opponents off the ballot.

Petition challenges aren’t the sexiest part of Dresbold’s work, but they certainly keep her busy during election season. In Pennsylvania, there’s only a seven-day window to challenge nominating petitions or papers.

Dresbold didn’t talk about specific clients, but campaign finance records show in 2018 she was paid more than $6,200 by state Rep. Thomas Caltagirone’s campaign and more than $7,200 by Friends of the 66A Ward in Philadelphia.

While it’s not clear whose petitions 66A was looking into (the ward leader did not respond to request for comment), the investment by Caltagirone, who has been under pressure to resign since it was reported House Dems paid a whopping $248,000 in 2015 to settle a sexual harassment allegation against him, appears to have worked.

His opponent, Mallory Scott, was kicked off the ballot in Berks County — just like he was in 2016. Indeed, Caltagirone’s campaign has successfully booted several candidates over the years.

“It’s much, much cheaper to get them off the ballot than to run against them,” Dresbold said.

In the lead-up to the May 2018 primary, there were 54 petition challenges across all races, according to Department of State records. Just 19 of the challenged candidates appeared on the ballot.

Petition challenges can end in a number of ways. Sometimes a candidate will simply drop out or concede that they didn’t collect enough valid signatures. Others fight the challenge in Commonwealth Court — then if they lose, appeal and fight it again.

It’s difficult to say how many campaigns use handwriting and document experts to explore petition challenges as there’s no uniform way to report the expenditures. While Caltagirone’s campaign listed Dresbold as a “handwriting expert,” other campaigns appear to list petition challenge expenditures as “professional services” or “legal consulting.”

What is clear is that both Democrats and Republicans are willing to put up cash to gamble on them.

Handwriting expert and document examiner J. Wright Leonard, for example, received $6,000 from the Springfield Republican Party in April 2018 and $6,000 from the Democratic State Senate Campaign Committee in February 2016.

Like Leonard, election attorney Otter represents people of any party persuasion. In 2018, campaign finance records show his clients included Republican candidate for governor Paul Mango, the Pennsylvania House Republican Campaign Committee, and two Democratic challengers.

One of those Democrats, Jay Breneman, had his petitions for a state House race challenged by two voters. Breneman’s campaign paid Otter a few thousands dollars and won the challenge. He got to appear on the ballot, but ultimately lost in the primary.

Dresbold also works for any party. One year you may be arguing against a candidate, she said. The next year you’re working for them.

That’s actually how she started working with Otter.

“The first time I went up against her, she cleaned my clock,” he said. The next time he needed a handwriting expert for a Pittsburgh case, he got her number.

Want some more? Explore other Billy Penn in Harrisburg stories.

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