Will Altmire Be Booted Off the Ballot?

Mark Critz threw Jason Altmire a solid punch last week by challenging his nominating petitions in court. Altmire collected 1,651 signatures; 651 more than the legal requirement, but well below the 2,000 that most campaigns consider standard to avoid challenges like this. Critz’s camp turned in 3,140.

Now the question is, could Altmire be booted from the ballot?

One election law expert says that’s not likely.

Larry Otter has handled close to 100 election law cases in the past 5 years. A former senior deputy Attorney General, he’s worked for Democrats, Republicans, independents, and third party candidates. He is a faculty member on the Pennsylvania Bar Institute’s Election Law Seminar.

He says that Altmire’s could be the case that finally gets the residency requirement for circulators thrown out.

Residency Requirement

The bulk of Critz’s challenge hinges on one staffer: Altmire campaign Finance Assistant and Director of New Media Abby Silverman. Silverman is registered to vote at her family home in O’Hara in the 12th district, but spends most days in her apartment in the 14th district.

Pa. law says that a petition circulator must reside in the district where he or she is gathering petitions. Thus, based on Silverman’s apartment in Pittsburgh, Critz’s campaign charges that the 395 signatures she collected are invalid.

The Commonwealth Court judge will have discretion over which carries more weight: Silverman’s voter registration card, or her bed. Both camps, Altmire and Critz, are prepared to contest the question.

Editor’s note: neither campaign will speak on the record about the case in detail, due to the fact that litigation is ongoing. But expect one side or the other to present/call for Silverman’s drivers license, utility bills or banks statements.

If the judge rules that Silverman is a resident of Pa-12, then the petitions she gathered are valid and the challenge is all but over. If the judge rules that she is a resident of Pa-14, the legal battle begins. But Otter says ultimately, it won’t matter.

That’s because he says the residency requirement for circulators is a hair’s breadth from being overturned.

Meet Carl Stevenson. At 59, the Upper Milford Township resident and president of consulting firm WK3C Wireless decided to launch an independent bid for State Rep. against Doug Reichley (R-Lehigh). He needed 577 signatures to make the ballot, and he collected 703.

Otter took him to court, arguing that Stevenson’s petitions violated the law. 97 of Stevenson’s signatures were collected by a non-resident circulator: Jake Towne, an independent candidate for Congress against Rep. Charlie Dent.

A Commonwealth Court Judge agreed, ruling that those 97 signatures, plus 90 more that all sides agreed were invalid, meant that Stevenson fell short of the number required to appear on the ballot.

Stevenson, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, appealed the ruling. He cited the 2002 case of Morrill v. Weaver, when a federal court ruled that Pa’s residency requirement for circulators is unconstitutional. Morrill was also an independent candidate.

Stevenson’s Commonwealth Court judge had rejected the Morrill argument on the simple grounds that the Commonwealth Court is not bound by rulings of lower federal courts.

The Pa. Supreme Court saw it differently. It remanded the Commonwealth Court ruling, saying it had not adequately addressed the question whether the residency requirement is constitutional.

But Otter says beyond the remand itself, the language of the Pa. Supreme Court’s ruling gives the strong impression that it was inclined to toss the residency requirement in order to comply with Morrill.

Long story short, if the issue comes before the Pa. Supreme Court again – like in the Altmire case – the Court will likely issue a ruling that permanently overturns the residency requirement.

“I am absolutely convinced that this would be the case that changes the law. The Supreme Court will determine that that requirement in the statute is unconstitutional,” Otter said.

Though Morrill – the only federal case to address Pa. law – dealt with an independent candidate, Otter says that every federal case in every state has held that residency requirements for petition circulators are unconstitutional.

PS. Ultimately Stevenson was knocked off the ballot the old fashioned way – a line-by-line challenge of his signatures.

The Takeaway

Option 1: When the parties meet in court on Friday, March 2, the Commonwealth Court Judge could determine that Silverman’s voter registration constitutes residency, and Altmire stays on the ballot.

Option 2: The Judge decides Silverman does not have residency in Pa-12. If the Critz campaign is then able to challenge an additional 297 signatures, and the Judge rules Altmire off the ballot, Altmire will appeal the ruling. Then, according to Otter, the Pa. Supreme Court will throw out the residency requirement for circulators and Altmire will be returned to the ballot.

Option 3: The Commonwealth Court judge will rule up front that the residency requirement for circulators is unconstitutional, and Altmire stays on the ballot.

Option 4 (which all sides regard as unlikely): The Judge decides that Silverman’s petitions do count, but the Critz campaign is able to challenge 652 other signatures; Altmire is removed from the ballot.

Miscellaneous

There are other issues that the Critz legal team is looking at. They’ve already hired a handwriting expert to search for forged signatures, and may seek to expand their initial challenge pending the results.

In addition to Silverman’s residency, the Critz campaign is also alleging that she could not have been in such far-flung locations on the same, as the signatures and their dates indicate.

And that’s on top of the 600 or so signatures that they are challenging for common mistakes that all campaigns make – like signatories abbreviating place names, using ditto marks, etc.

For those and all challenges, the Critz camp will need to go page-by-page and possible even line-by-line until they get to 652 signatures.

Conclusion

Today, it appears that in all likelihood Altmire will remain on the ballot. But that would be far from a win for him. After all, the entire ordeal could have been avoided by collecting a few hundred more petition signatures.

Likewise, it would be far from a loss for Critz. He’s already enjoyed serving up a week of awful headlines to his opponent. It’s the number one topic of conversation among western Pa. politicos – like some Beaver County Dems interviewed by J.D. Prose. An extended trial with headlines about forgery and fraud would be music to Mark Critz’s ears.

February 27th, 2012 | Posted in Congress, Front Page Stories, Top Stories | 13 Comments

13 thoughts on “Will Altmire Be Booted Off the Ballot?”

  1. SourGrapes says:

    Agree with the comments from David up above. Looks likes a desperate attempt by the Critz campaign manager – they are down by 10 in the polls… so maybe they think their only way of winning is to run unopposed? I would think this kind of petty politics will hurt Critz when folks get in the voting booth on primary day.

  2. Mike P. says:

    If Critz does knock Altmire off the ballot and “winning” this way, he will have a hard time getting support from those in Altmire’s district in the general election. He might win this battle, but this would ultimately cost the Dems this seat.

    I hope Critz’s team thought through all the implications of this challenge besides just winning the primary.

  3. Robert Tolz says:

    I like Jason Altmire because he stands up to Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi!

  4. TRUEDEMOCRAT says:

    Shame on these so called “Democratic” County Committees. Altmire is a Republican. Look at his voting record. The proof is in the pudding. Critz is your TRUE Democratic candidate.

  5. SWPAnnA says:

    In a redrawn district, the Voters must get to know their “new” congressman. A relationship with the residents develops over time. Formerly an Altmire constituent, I regret that I could not circulate his petitions as I am now in Mike Kelly’s district. Unlike Critz, Jason serves ALL the People as I have regularly been told in my dealings with R’s and I’s in my area. He has been a diligent and accessible Congressman and except for that Super Delegate vote for Obama (when his district went for Hillary by 40%), has been a decent, traditional Pennsylvanian.

  6. judi says:

    As someone who lived in Critz’s old district, I have to say he has worked more on going after Altmire than he ever did to help Washington or Greene County. It seems that Critz is only good at playing dirty. From everything I have read Critz is the only one mud slinging. God forbid you help people in need. I hear there’s a women’s group with his number. Critz getting on the ticket is the best thing for the Republicans. With his dirty laundry he would hope his biggest problem is where someone is living.

  7. David Diano says:

    Santorum didn’t even live in PA.

  8. David Darby says:

    you would think these guys are Santorum and Romney. Geez, if this is the way it is starting, then you have to think the gloves are already off. Lucky GOP. Do I hear pickup anyone?

  9. TNardi says:

    I tend to think that residency requirements for circulators should be no more stringent than for candidates.

    That said, I totally agree with David. This woman is registered to vote at her parents house, which is not unheard of for young people who tend to move around a lot. If she pays taxes there, gets mail there, and uses it as her permanent address, what is to say she shouldn’t be able to vote there too? As long as that’s the only place she’s registered, go with God and let’s move on from this.

    I originally thought that the Critz challenge had merit. Now I’m thinking that it is all smoke no fire.

  10. STEELBLITZ1 says:

    These are excellent points by David. Good article.

  11. David Diano says:

    The voter registration address should be the standard. That’s where she votes.

    What about kids who are away at college? They are still registered at their parents’ address.

    What if someone has more than one residence? Or travels for business and has secondary location?

    As long as she is registered in only one place, has access to that place, gets mail there, etc. that should be sufficient.

  12. rdog says:

    Who cares whether Altmrie is on the ballot or not? He can still influence this nation from K Street as a Healthcare lobbyist and from his seat that is waiting for him at Fox News. Altmirecare will change this nation. Opps! Is there an Altmirecare plan??

  13. Isaac L. says:

    Now I don’t live in the district and I don’t have a dog in this primary fight, but if you can run in a congressional district in which you don’t live, then why would you need to reside in that district to collect signatures? It’s not like those signatures aren’t from residents. This seems more than a little legalistic.

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