Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Green Roots & Harrisburg Blues

Titus North
(photo by Sandy Hazley)

Green Roots & Harrisburg Blues

(Published in The New People, Pittsburgh, PA, December 2006)

by e b bortz

You know when you’re in the middle of one of those indelible segments in your life...the kind that will twist around and transform the emotional and logical sides of your internal processes. Social change, politics in the broadest sense of the word, is often the tumultuous vehicle that delivers that impact.

This year, as has been the case since 1996, Green Party activists in the Pittsburgh area and across Pennsylvania hit the streets in early March petitioning to place Green candidates on the ballot for the November election. We had no illusions about the task at hand. To place our candidates Carl Romanelli for the U.S. Senate, Marakay Rogers for Governor, and Christina Valente for Lt. Governor on the November ballot, we would need more than 100,000 petition signatures, to satisfy the repressive Pennsylvania ballot access requirement this year of 67,070
registered voters’ signatures. Of course it wasn’t just signatures. The petition, technically known as a nomination paper, also required a printed name, address, and date of signing for each person willing to sign.

In the Pittsburgh area, we were energized by the desire to place Titus North on the ballot for Congress in the Fourteenth Congressional District. We all felt deeply that Titus needed to be on the ballot so that voters would have the chance to express a strong vote for peace and the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, an unequivocal approach to national health care for all, equality, immigrant rights, and a defense of the Constitution and due process --- issues where other politicians have been “missing in action.” We probably talked directly to over 50,000 people on the streets, at peace and social justice events, at festivals and at farmers’ markets all over town. Greens in Allegheny County sensed a historic mission this year, and turned in over 7,400 petition signatures for the statewide candidates, which also included over 6,200 for Titus North’s ballot access.

After successfully defending against an unnecessary petition challenge from incumbent Congress member Mike Doyle (PA-14, Democrat), Titus and the Greens went on to roll up 17,720 votes or 9.9 percent in the Fourteenth District, a Green record in Allegheny County. This vote total of November 7, 2006 will maintain minor party status for the Green Party of Allegheny County.

But numbers don’t really do justice to this story. The dynamics, turmoil, and ultimate miscarriage of justice in Harrisburg from the challenge by the Pennsylvania Democratic Party to Carl Romanelli’s ballot access for U.S. Senate, needs a book written about it. This isn’t the space for that. But I would be remiss if I didn’t at least attempt to put down, in raw form, some personal notes I’ll call...

Harrisburg Blues

We knew that the challenge to our statewide candidates would be relentless, with the full weight of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, the Bob Casey Campaign (with their millions in campaign money), and the Pittsburgh law firm of Thorp Reed & Armstrong --- all aligned against Carl Romanelli and a determined group of Green Party grassroots activists and allies, including several from Pittsburgh. Most of us had never faced a political challenge of this kind. From time to time, we huddled out in the hall of Room 304 of the Capitol’s North Office Building, everyone giving their best advise on how to stay focused with the task at hand, and to offer that personal encouragement and solidarity so necessary in order to remain positive.

The actual logistics of our defense involved nine pairs (one Green, one Democrat) reviewing every challenged petition signature, literally thousands, using nine state voter database terminals of the SURE system. We worked eight hours a day in Room 304 from August 14 to September 22. For Titus North and myself, a tent in Gifford Pinchot State Park near Harrisburg became home.

There was an atmosphere of tension and threats of “contempt of court” in Room 304 that had basically been created by the imposition of the court ordered “Protocol for Signature Review” of August 24, 2006. These rules became the mechanism to discard signatures; essentially disenfranchise the rights of thousands of legitimate voters who had freely signed the Green Party nomination papers.

Some of the protocol criteria that knocked legitimate voters off of our petitions:

1) The signer’s name and address were in the voter database, but for some reason, the voter’s signature was not on file in the SURE system. These were likely problems of the database or the local election office. Under the protocol, these valid voters were marked “invalid.” There were hundreds of these instances across the state.

2) The petition listed the signature first, followed by the printed name of the signer. We lost many valid signatures because the order was reversed. We always objected to this triviality, but mostly lost our arguments, sometimes over the screaming of Democratic Party lawyers in the room, enforced by a Court Officer.

3) The SURE system database was horribly inconsistent in it’s formatting of street name directional descriptions (e.g. “South 08th Street” in Philadelphia might be identified as “Eighth Street, S” in Allegheny County). Many signatures were not validated due to this confusion in the first week of the review. Even with the discovery of this problem, we were not permitted to revisit these signatures with additional search attempts at a later date. There was no consistency with rural route addresses in the SURE system either; hundreds of these signers were likely “invalidated” due to this inconsistency.

4) There were some very contentious exchanges between Greens and Democrats when the challenge was based on the criteria “Signature Varies from Registration Card” or “Illegible Signature.” No one in Room 304 was a handwriting expert, making it even more important to have a good faith/common sense approach to this issue. I specifically remember my counterpart on a particular day, a burly fellow from South Carolina who was helping the Casey Campaign, telling me “I don’t think all those letters in that signature look right to me.” It was my opinion that this signature, like many more during that unfortunate day, were lost to the “disputed” column rather than being credited as valid.

5) One of the mantras of the Democratic Party lawyers was that signatures must be struck if they were “facially invalid.” Mind you, these registered voters were real voters at their given addresses, but were nonetheless invalidated; possibly entering all of the necessary information, but maybe abbreviating “Reading” in Berks County with “Rdg,” or reversing some other information on the petition line.

6) And what about the voter that had moved out of the dorm and into a neighborhood nearby and now has a new address that was used on the petition but was never changed at the election office? Even with a confident and consensus arrived verification of signature, we lost thousands of these signers for “Address Varies from Registration Card.”

7) We argued and won a little bit of relief on the issue of nicknames, but not on the issue of initials (either added or missing) in the signature. It’s a simple fact of life that many people don’t remember how they signed their voter registration years ago, and for that, they were essentially disenfranchised. What’s next, literacy tests and poll taxes?

So it was a tremendous victory when Titus North made it to the November ballot by “rehabilitating” through extreme persistence, two-thirds of the bogus challenges, and having them restored to the “valid” category. In the interest of full disclosure, I give Mike Doyle some credit for using an independent consulting firm to perform his end of the challenge to Titus’ petitions. We made it clear that Titus would go to court and win ballot placement based on our review results; thus, Mike Doyle dropped his lawsuit against Titus. But of course, it was a tremendous waste of our resources to even go through this aspect of the torture.

For Carl Romanelli, we persevered to the end, but without success. Commonwealth Court acknowledged that the statewide Green Party petitions had 58,139 valid signatures, 8931 shy of our goal. The Court rejected any re-examination of the many thousands of “disputed” signatures based on a “lack of time,” turning down all appeals with the stroke of a pen. Rallies and press conferences for democracy were held in the capitol, but for the most part, we were systematically ignored by the media. The trivializing of this whole episode by the media was probably best expressed by Chris Potter on August 17 in the Pittsburgh City Paper:

“My personal favorite Romanelli backer, though, is one “Jack MeOff,” who apparently resides on “Cum Street,” city unlisted.”

Potter also mentions that Robert Redford and Jesus Christ signed the Green Party petitions. My questions to Chris Potter are, does that invalidate the nearly 100,000 other signatures on these petitions? How can you so easily buy into the corporate media (some would say propaganda) machine, without even the appearance of a fact-finding effort? And with only 2000 signatures required of Democrats and Republicans for these same statewide offices, when will we read your words about the biased nature of this whole outrageous ballot access regime? Got democracy? When does it start?

Today, Carl Romanelli faces hundreds of thousands of dollars from a lawsuit designed by the “winners” to recoup their legal fees. That’s right, when you run for office as a Green or Independent, get challenged by the political establishment and get kicked off the ballot, you may also face complete personal financial ruin. This kind of vindictiveness is nothing short of police state methodology. As peace and social justice activists of all political stripes, we need to be fully cognizant of the climate we operate in. The trashing of the Constitution and the bashing of immigrants has become a bi-partisan affair. To simply relinquish the platform in the electoral arena to the major parties, is an invitation to more repression and scapegoating.

A new “muscular” Democratic Party has taken Congress as the voters have emphatically rejected the Bush-Santorum record of endless war and social neglect. How will the muscle be used? These times demand a kind of vigilance and leadership on democracy issues that only grassroots peace and justice activists can provide. Who will stand with the dispossessed?

An injury to one is an injury to all.



Matt Cleveland said...

I remember 2 things from one of Casey's victory speeches:
He said "we ran on our agenda" and there "has to be some accountability". I agree with him. His agenda was to bully the Greens and limit democracy. That is where he spent money and time. So I have held him accountable for his campaign. The Democrats are no longer a "second choice" for me. They are my enemy. They have attacked my party, and I will not give them the prize they expect - my vote.

NewFederalist said...

It is an affront to all voters what the Democrats did to the Greens this past election. And the Democrats expect us to believe they are going to clean up the Republican mess in DC? Yeah, right!