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Don't penalize independents

December 27, 2005

Should an independent candidate who tries and fails to get on the Pennsylvania ballot be further penalized by being billed for the court costs of the fight?

We say no. Barring an outright attempt at fraud, a candidate who attempts to break the monopoly the two parties now have on the ballot box should not be forced to risk financial ruin to seek elective office.

At issue are nominating petitions filed last year on behalf of consumer advocate Ralph Nader's attempt to get on the state's presidential ballot.

The Nader campaign needed 26,000 signatures, but collected 51,000 instead. However, Commonwealth Court judges disqualified so many of Nader's signatures that his effort fell short.

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The Nader campaign was challenged by pro-bono lawyers described by the Associated Press as sympathetic to Democratic nominee John Kerry. Nader lost and is now facing an $81,000 legal bill.

And here's the kicker: Nader and running mate Peter Camejo are personally responsible for those costs.

Nader's lawyer has said that if candidates whose petitions are successfully challenged are stuck with legal costs, third-party attempts to get on the ballot will be much more difficult - and much rarer.

Nader's attorneys will soon go before the state Supreme Court to argue the case. The outcome could have implications for a group of state-level politicians - those incumbents who gave themselves a pay raises, then used something called "unvouchered expenses" to get the raise early.

A group called PACleanSweep is recruiting candidates to challenge incumbents next year, when 228 seats will be open.

True attempts to defraud the system should be harshly dealt with. But legitimate attempts by first-time challengers should not force would-be candidates to put their financial futures at risk. Make campaigns responsible for court costs, if necessary, but spare the candidates that burden.

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