Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Sympathy for the Devil

The Democrats in my newsroom (OK, that's a redundancy) rejoiced yesterday that Ralph Nader was bumped from the ballot here in Pennsylvania. They pronounced his failure a triumph of the democratic process, based on the simple fact that his ballot petition didn't have enough legal signatures. "If he played by the rules, he would have been allowed to run," is how one put it (emphatically enough for me to hear across the room). It was as simple as that.

But wait, not it wasn't.

Kerry-backers had challenged Nader's signatures, and it looked like they were going to bump him on that basis alone. But that wasn't what the three-judge Commonwealth Court panel ruled yesterday.

It said Nader could not run as an independent because he had filed to run on the Reform Party ticket in Michigan.

The challengers celebrated anyway. As long as Ralph's off the machines, that's a good outcome, right?

Well, it depends if your commitment is to "democracy" with a big D or a little D. Nader's attorney in the case pointed out that the statute which the judges relied on for their ruling was misapplied here. It was meant to prevent candidates for most Pennsylvania offices from cross-filing in more than one party.

[The relevant clause of the state election code seems to be this one: "Each candidate for any State, county, city, borough, incorporated town, township, ward, school district, poor district, election district, party office, party delegate or alternate, or for the office of United States Senator or Representative in Congress, shall file with his nomination petition his affidavit stating ... (f) unless he is a candidate for judge of a court of common pleas, the Philadelphia Municipal Court or the Traffic Court of Philadelphia, or for the office of school director in a district where that office is elective or for the office of justice of the peace that he is not a candidate for nomination for the same office of any party other than the one designated in such petition; ...." (emphasis added)]

This sudden re-interpretation has national consequences. In 2000, when Nader ran in 43 states and in the District of Columbia, his party affiliation was listed in 13 different ways. The convolutions necessary for a non-two-party candidate to offer him or herself to voters in all 50 states all but require such a byzantine effort. But now even that won't be enough.

The Pennsylvania case wasn't a victory for the legitimacy of the electoral process. It wasn't a boon to the voters. It was a victory for the continued domination of the two-party system, putting any reasonably hope of success by any outside candidate all but out of reach.