Editorials from around Pennsylvania

Published on NewsOK Modified: July 30, 2014 at 10:40 am •  Published: July 30, 2014
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Editorials from around Pennsylvania:

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STATE ELECTION LAW RESTRICTS VOTERS' CHOICES

In November's election, will you have to choose between candidates only from the two major parties or will smaller parties get candidates onto the ballot, too?

That question will be decided soon. The deadline for the Green and Libertarian Party candidates to file signatures to get on the ballot is Friday.

If past is prologue, Pennsylvania voters will have less choice than those in many other states.

State laws here pose some high hurdles to candidates trying to get on, or stay on, the ballot.

The issue isn't so much the number of signatures required. This election cycle, would-be candidates running statewide had five months to collect the necessary 16,638 signatures from registered voters.

That's more than eight times the 2,000 signatures major party candidates have to get. But in a state of almost 13 million people, 16,000-plus signatures is not an unreasonable test, or an insurmountable barrier.

The biggest hurdles come at the next steps in the process.

Once the signatures are turned in, sharp-eyed political partisans and their lawyers typically go to work. If they think the minor party candidate's presence on the ballot hurts their prospects, they'll comb through the signatures, looking for any excuse to invalidate them and knock the candidate off the ballot.

In the signature review process, courts may require the minor party to provide a small army of volunteers or staff to be present, for work that can take weeks.

If the minor party loses and gets tossed off the ballot, it can be forced to pay the attackers' legal fees, a risk that can exceed $100,000.

That actually happened to presidential candidate Ralph Nader in 2004 and the Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate in 2006.

The legal standard for imposing fees in these cases is fearfully vague — whatever a court concludes is "just." No proof the candidate committed or condoned fraud or cheating is required.

Three minor parties — the Constitution, Libertarians and Greens — have sued to strike down some of Pennsylvania's most restrictive ballot access rules. They have pointed out that the mere threat of having to pay such huge legal fees can be used to scare a minor party opponent out of the race.

As a federal appeals court noted in a ruling on their case earlier this month, "a shrewd lawyer engaged on behalf of three private challengers affiliated with the Republican Party expressly threatened to move for upwards of $100,000 in costs if the Libertarian Party went forward with its nomination efforts."

The court noted that the 2010 Libertarian nominee for lieutenant governor, Kat Valleley quit the race, citing fear of paying big fees for losing a signature challenge. The Green Party's candidate for the same office in 2006 quit for the same reason after her signatures were challenged.

It's clear that the fee rule has a chilling effect on those trying to exercise their First Amendment rights to run for public office.

A lower court dismissed the minor parties' lawsuit, citing technical, procedural reasons. However, the case was reinstated this month by a federal appeals court.

Richard Winger, a national expert on ballot access, says the number of signatures Pennsylvania requires is not out of the ordinary. (In statewide races, it's 2 percent of the turnout in the previous election.)

But when it comes to how a party stays on the ballot going forward, he says Pennsylvania is the worst.

No other state says a party gets bumped off the next election ballot if it doesn't have at least 15 percent of a state's registered voters. Winger says that standard would disqualify Democrats from automatically appearing on the ballot in Idaho and Utah, and Republicans from automatically making the ballot in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Winger also criticizes the threat of high legal fees if a minor party loses a signature challenge.

"In Pennsylvania, the (ballot access) law has gotten worse and worse and worse." Prior to 1971, Winger says, Pennsylvania "used to be ideal."

By controlling the legislature and governor's office, the two major parties basically get to write state election rules. It's no surprise minor parties don't get much slack when trying to get on the ballot.

If Pennsylvania voters are going to get more choice at election time, it will come as courts scrutinize the state's ballot access laws. It's the courts' job to make sure those laws don't stack the deck in the electoral process by violating the constitutional rights of minor parties and their supporters.

—PennLive.com

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FEDERAL RAIL MANDATE WILL MAKE OIL CARS SAFER

The latest federal proposal to improve the safe transportation of flammable liquids by rail would require oil shippers to use stronger tank cars by October 2017. Cars carrying crude oil, ethanol and other petroleum products would be retrofitted to include thicker steel shielding and better thermal protection, which are designed to result in less product release and smaller fires in the event of an accident.

The U.S. Transportation Department's welcome mandate comes in the wake of a year of heavy spills and catastrophic derailments. Notable instances condemned by federal regulators include the derailment of a train in Vandergrift in February that poured 10,000 gallons of oil onto the tracks, and a runaway train crash that killed 47 people in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic last July.

The Railway Supply Institute — charged with the representation of tank car manufacturers in North America — has greeted the proposal with silence.

In turn, industry officials have protested that the rapid upgrade could create a temporary shortage of cars that would truncate the production of oil.

That is short-sighted. From a cost-efficiency standpoint, the curtailment of future train accidents would save the federal government an estimated $2.63 billion — slightly exceeding the cost of $2.59 billion that would be needed to upgrade the 98,000 oil cars now operating in North America to standards set by the Association of American Railroads.

Even a net loss in income would be negligible in comparison to the threat posed by these derailments to the environment, private property and security of communities. When safety is at stake, the first duty of government is not to maintain industry's profit, but the well-being of people.

—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.