Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

On Tuesday, well over 100 candidates filed petitions with the Philadelphia Board of Elections to run in the May 21 primary.

But that doesn’t guarantee they’ll actually appear on the ballot — not if the regular battles ensue.

Candidates seeking elected office are required to submit at least 1,000 valid signatures from registered voters in their party (750 for district Council races) to prove they’re serious enough to get a slot. But nary a Philadelphia election cycle has passed without fracas over these signatures.

In the coming days, expect to see numerous petition challenges as candidates and political insiders try to get each other ousted from the ballot. Disqualifying offenses run the gamut. Some candidates, especially incumbents, will hire lawyers specifically to help them sniff out “fatal defects” on their rivals’ petitions.

With packed races — there are 41 (!) people vying for City Council at-large — expect more challenges than usual before the deadline next week. One legal objection reportedly came in less than an hour after a candidate filed yesterday.

Forgery is rare, human error more common

Some of the biggest petition scandals have revolved not around the signatures, but around the financial disclosure section of the filing paperwork. By law, candidates have to list all their sources of income, no exceptions.

Two recent high-profile cases involved former Congressman Bob Brady and ex-District Attorney Seth Williams (both politicians whose careers would be haunted by campaign finance laws down the road).

During Brady’s 2007 mayoral bid, he was knocked with a petition challenge for failing to list his carpenters union pension as income on his financial disclosure.

In 2009, Williams contended with a challenge for not reporting more than $10,000 in unspecified “reimbursements” from his campaign fund, which attorneys said counted as income. Both Brady and Williams eventually survived the challenges and appeared on their respective ballots.

Others were less lucky. In 2015, a Common Pleas Court judge ordered city commissioner candidate Dennis Lee off the ballot over “fatal defects” on his financial disclosure form. His faux pas? Not listing his 2014 city salary.

“It was an oversight on my part, a human mistake, and the judge is holding me to a higher standard than anyone else,” Lee said at the time.

Forged petition signatures are another big one, but few serious candidates make themselves vulnerable enough for such a challenge, according to election law attorney Adam Bonin. (Several of Bonin’s clients are running in the 2019 municipal elections.)

“With rare exceptions, serious candidates will get the number of signatures they need,” Bonin said. “The people who get kicked off the ballot for signatures tend to be first-time or grassroots candidates who do a sloppy job and don’t have a real campaign behind them.”

Serious candidates also over-collect signatures in what often amounts to a political flexing match. On Tuesday, Mayor Jim Kenney’s campaign submitted 24,000 signatures, dwarfing his Democratic challengers Alan Butkovitz and state Sen. Anthony Williams.

What to expect for 2019

In election cycles past, candidates have gotten challenged for as little as using their nicknames on petition paperwork. One candidate for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives last year neglected to write in the office he was seeking, and subsequently dropped out of the race.

But today’s court challenges aren’t as much of a “gotcha” game as they used to be. Insiders say judges are tired of all the nitpicking.

The state Supreme Court put its foot down about financial disclosure issues after too many pedantic feuds between candidates. The courts now focus more on big-league claims like obviously bunk signatures or fraudulent residency (pro tip: you should be able to prove you live in the city or district where you’re seeking office).

Of course, there are more creative ways to fight a petition battle as well. Attorneys will bring in expert witnesses to convince a judge of a foul petition. Bonin once hired a cartographer to demonstrate that it was not geographically possible for one petition circulator to gather 426 signatures in the span of a single Tuesday in West Oak Lane.

Judging by past municipal election years, we’ll likely see far more challenges in the crowded Council races than for, say, the judicial races. The incentives are different. For would-be judges, ballot position is more important than the sheer number of candidates. Kicking out one name from a 30-person pool won’t make much of a difference.

For certain incumbents, successfully knocking an opponent off the ballot can be the factor deciding whether they have to mount a real campaign at all. Every district councilmember — except, in a very Philadelphia twist, indicted Councilman Bobby Henon — had at least one Democratic challenger file petitions yesterday.

The deadline for filing petition challenges is next Tuesday, which will be followed by the drawing for ballot position from an old Horn & Hardart coffee tin.

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...