Today is the deadline for submitting nominating petitions for candidates wishing to run for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, United States Senate, and Congress, which means that in a few hours, their campaigns will soon begin a painstaking examination of opposing candidates’ petitions for every mistake imaginable: ditto marks, an impermissible abbreviation, a nickname instead of a full name, a non-cursive signature, handwriting that is too similar, handwriting that isn’t sufficiently similarly—and the list goes on. This tedious process is made all the more difficult by the fact that all objections to nomination petitions are due within a week (March 22), and hearings on those objections must begin within three days (no later than March 25). Having represented clients in several petition challenges (both as a petitioner and a respondent), I hope to offer a few useful tips—both substantive and procedural.
- Commonwealth Court Standing Order. If you are the petitioner, consult the Commonwealth Court’s Standing Order on setting aside nomination petitions, which is available on the court’s website. This document is helpful for a number of reasons: first, it provides a basic synopsis of the road ahead in case you decide to go forward with an objection; second, its list of the most common grounds for challenging signature lines, although not exclusive, is instructive; third, the link to the template excel spreadsheet is highly useful because it gives the candidate’s campaign team a uniform system for logging challenges and using it will save time at the end of the process.
- Handwriting expert. If handwriting plays a significant part in the challenge, you should begin the process of securing a handwriting expert as soon as possible, regardless of whether you are the petitioner or respondent.
- Curable vs. fatal defects. Be mindful of the difference between grounds for objection that may be cured and those that are fatal. Although the fine distinctions between the two classes of defects are too numerous and nuanced to discuss here, having a firm grasp of these principles is crucial to preparing an effective hearing strategy.
- New caselaw. Because the law in this landscape is constantly evolving, keep abreast of recent developments. It seems like after every election, there is at least one significant decision from the Supreme Court articulating a new legal principle or clarifying an old one. In 2021, for example, the Court held that in light of an amendment contained in Act 77, an elector’s signature must be stricken if the address set forth in the nominating petition differs from the address at which the elector is registered to vote. See In re Major, 248 A.3d 445, 451-52 (Pa. 2021). In doing so, the Court expressly abrogated its decision in In re Vodvarka, 140 A.3d 639 (Pa. 2016), which was issued only five years earlier. This is just one example of the changes that must be closely tracked.
What should you expect after objections are filed? Once a petition to set aside is filed, the Court will enter a scheduling and case management order setting the matter for a hearing and establishing the deadlines for briefs. One thing to bear in mind is that, as a matter of course, the parties are generally required to meet and confer in an effort to narrow the scope of disputed signatures. Usually, by the end of this process, only a handful of signatures will remain in question—with both sides making concessions where a signature is obviously valid or obviously defective.