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Election and Campaign Finance Law Attorney Ralph J. Teti Quoted on Luzerne County's Independent Party-Line Vote

November 10, 2013

Independent party-line vote scrutinized (citizensvoice.com)

By Michael P. Buffer

Legal opinions are mixed on whether Luzerne County should have offered straight-party voting for independent candidates in Tuesday's election.

After noticing the straight-party option may have helped independent candidate Rick Williams retain a seat on county council, a few objections were raised during Tuesday night's unofficial vote count.

Philadelphia attorney Ralph J. Teti, who served as general counsel to Philadelphia's election commission, said he doesn't believe voters should have a straight-party option for independent candidates because they don't represent parties.

"Independents are just that. They're independents," Teti said. "My understanding is the party lever is for political parties."

But the Independent Party is considered a "minor political party" in Luzerne County because of the number of votes Willams received in 2011, according to county Director of Elections Marisa Crispell and Michael Butera, solicitor for the county election board. State law must permit each voter in a general or municipal election "to vote a straight political party ticket by one mark or act."

"It's black and white," Crispell said.

A countywide political party must have a candidate who received at least 5 percent of the largest entire vote cast for any elected candidate in the county in either the general or municipal election preceding a primary election, according to the Department of State. Williams easily exceeded that threshold and won a two-year term on county council in 2011.

County councilman Stephen J. Urban, a Republican, and Bob Caruso, a Democratic committeeman from Wilkes-Barre Township, objected to straight-party voting for independents during the unofficial vote count.

Scranton attorney Bill Jones agreed that Luzerne County followed the law by putting a straight-party option for independents on Tuesday's ballot. He added "the time to object has long since passed," explaining a judge would not disenfranchise voters by invalidating straight-party votes for independents.

According to unofficial vote totals, 3,861 straight-party ballots went to Republicans, 5,956 to Democrats, 758 to independents and eight to non-partisan. Williams came in fifth place with 17,226 votes to secure the final council seat up for election. Republican Sue Rossi was in sixth place with 17,147 votes.

Candidates of the Democratic and Republican parties are nominated in a political party primary. Candidates of minor political parties and political bodies are nominated with nomination papers.

"A political body may nominate candidates who are known as 'independent' because they are not sponsored by a major or minor political party," the state guide to local government says.

The form of the nomination papers filed by candidates of minor political parties differs slightly from those filed by candidates of political bodies. Williams nomination papers said "Independent" in the space for "name of minor political party." Sam Troy, who unsuccessfully ran for Wilkes-Barre Area School Board, also submitted nomination papers with "Independent" in that space.

For local and state offices, the minimum number of signers on nomination papers must equal 2 percent of the largest entire vote cast for any elected official, except a judge of a court of record, in the last preceding election in the same electoral district. The amount can't be less than the number required for nomination petitions for party candidates for the same office.

A candidate of a political body is required to appoint at last three and no more than five persons, who would be authorized to fill a vacated nomination. A candidate of a minor political party does not have to do that.

Williams recalled being informed that Wil Toole, who unsuccessfully ran for county controller as an independent in 2009, would be able to fill vacant nominations for Independent Party candidates. Williams said he was asked in 2011 if he wanted to run as non-affiliated or independent.

H. Jeremy Packard unsuccessfully ran as an independent for county council in 2011 and is currently chairman of the county election board. Packard and Williams filed joint nomination papers in 2011, but they didn't campaign as running mates on an Independent Party ticket.

Luzerne County voters also had the option to vote straight party for Independents in 2009 and 2011. Frank Casarella and Gil Dominick won seats on the Wyoming Area School Board as independent candidates in 2009.

A straight-party vote is essentially a shortcut that gives votes to all party candidates on the ballot and no votes to candidates in other parties. Voters who voted straight party for independents still could have voted for Williams and no other county council candidates without the straight-party option.

Williams said he supports state legislation to end straight-party voting for all parties, noting that more than 20 percent of Luzerne County voters used the straight-party option in Tuesday's election.

"The two-party system is not working," Williams said.

State Rep. Eli Evankovich, R-Export, and state Rep. Justin Simmons, R-Coopersburg, introduced legislation to ban straight-party voting.

"Pennsylvania is currently one of only fifteen states that have an option to 'vote straight-ticket Democrat' or 'vote straight-ticket Republican.' We believe that having a straight-party voting option on the ballot creates an election process that is inherently more partisan," Evankovich and Simmons wrote in a memo for their proposed legislation

   
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