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Federal appeals court temporarily blocks signature-gathering requirements for minor Pennsylvania parties

[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit [official website] on Wednesday vacated [opinion, PDF] a lower federal court injunction that imposed county-based signature-gathering requirements that minor political parties in Pennsylvania must fulfill to get their candidates on the ballot.

This is the latest development in a case that has been in litigation since 2012 when the Constitution, Green and Libertarian [party websites] parties of Pennsylvania, collectively referred to as the "Aspiring Parties," filed a ยง 1983 [text, PDF] suit against the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the Commissioner [official profiles] of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Commissions, Elections, and Legislation (the state), claiming that certain of Pennsylvania's election laws violated their First and Fourteenth Amendment [GPO backgrounders, PDFs] rights. Specifically, the Aspiring Parties challenged the requirement that political organizations not classified as "major parties" under Pennsylvania law gather a considerable number of signatures to place their candidates on the ballot—signatures, the validity of which, can be challenged.

Although the Aspiring Parties ultimately prevailed in the initial suit in 2015, Judge Lawrence Stengel of the US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania [official website] nevertheless ordered an injunction in June 2016 requiring count-based signature gathering requirements. Essentially, the district court had asked both sides to present proposed orders. While the Aspiring Parties proposed an order requiring the state to place their candidates' name on the ballot at the very least upon submission of "valid signatures equal in number to the requirements imposed upon major party candidates," the state proposed that that the Aspiring Parties be required to "gather two and one-half times as many signatures as major party candidates" to be placed on the ballot. The court adopted the state's proposed order, which led to this appeal.

The lower court's adoption of the state's requirement meant that at least 5,000 signatures must be gathered, with a minimum of 250 from at least ten counties, for the office of the Governor, while between 1,250 and 2,500 signatures needed to be gathered, with a minimum of 250 from at least five counties, for all other state offices.

Judge Jane Richards Roth, writing for the Third Circuit, stated:

the District Court did not make any factual findings or provide any explanation on the record of the factors it considered in determining that its injunction was appropriate. Because resolving vote dilution challenges is a fact intensive process and because county-based signature gathering requirements have been held to be constitutional only when they have been shown to have no appreciable impact on the franchise, the lack of fact-finding requires that we vacate the District Court's order.

Acknowledging that the district court was working under significant time pressure in June 2016 "when the campaign season had already begun," Roth stated that the lower federal court may issue another injunction containing the same county-based signature-gathering requirements, but not before appropriately considering the constitutionality of those requirements. Specifically, Roth stated that the county-based signature-gathering requirements may be imposed if the lower court "concludes that the requirements would have no appreciable impact on voting rights." Since "The court did not so conclude here," and since the appellate court had "no basis in the record to reach such a conclusion independently," Roth concluded that "the District Court's order must be vacated."

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