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The Forward Party wants to be on Pa.’s 2024 general election ballot. It must overcome several hurdles.

by Katie Meyer of Spotlight PA |

Forward Party attorney general candidate Eric Settle and treasurer candidate Chris Foster.
Courtesy Forward Party

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HARRISBURG — If you want to get on the ballot as a third-party candidate in Pennsylvania, it helps to have a good lawyer.

As Democrats and Republicans prepare to vote in their primary elections, a relatively new party founded by former presidential candidate Andrew Yang is attempting to join races for two of the commonwealth’s elected row offices.

The Forward Party, which casts itself as a potential home for moderates who feel alienated by major party politics, wants to run candidates for attorney general and treasurer on the November 2024 ballot.

But to do that successfully, the party will need to navigate a confusing system that relies partly on the commonwealth’s Election Code, partly on precedent, and partly on state policy — elements of which could be changed in court at any time.

On top of that, election attorney Larry Otter says they’ll almost certainly need to battle attempts by major parties, which see third parties as potential spoilers, to push them off the ballot.

“The Green Party is always the target for the Democrats. The Republicans, they target the Libertarians,” said Otter, who has represented candidates across the political spectrum, including third parties. “It all depends who’s attempting to get on the ballot and which party has an interest in seeing that they should not be on the ballot.”

Third-party and unaffiliated candidates don’t run in primary elections. Rather, they submit nomination papers signed by registered voters. These papers allow candidates from the same party to collect signatures as a slate, which is what this year’s Forward Party candidates are doing.

Pennsylvania’s Election Code sets a high bar for the number of signatures needed.

Candidates running for statewide office — like governor, U.S. Senate, or a row office — must get a number of signatures equal to 2% of the votes cast for the candidate who got the most votes in the last general election.

Under this standard, a Forward Party candidate would need roughly 33,000 signatures to get on the ballot this year — much higher than the 1,000-signature requirement for Democratic and Republican row office candidates.

But there’s a big caveat that renders this rule largely moot.

After a lawsuit in which the Constitution, Green, and Libertarian Parties argued that the 2% bar was too high, the state agreed to cap the signature requirement for all independent and third-party candidates.

Currently, Pennsylvania’s Department of State requires non-major-party candidates for statewide row offices to gather 2,500 signatures to get on the ballot; candidates for president, U.S. senator, and governor must collect 5,000 signatures.

Even this rule has a caveat, though. In its petition instructions for candidates, the department notes that the 2018 ruling expressly applies only to the parties that brought the suit.

While the agency has opted to apply the rule uniformly, it notes that other parties’ signatures — like those of the Forward Party, for instance — could be challenged on the basis that the court’s ruling didn’t explicitly apply to them.

“In the event that objections to a nomination paper were filed by a qualified elector, the court would determine on its own authority whether to enforce the signature requirement imposed by [the Election Code],” the Department of State wrote in the instructions.

Forward Party political director Craig Snyder says it’s aiming to collect at least 5,000 signatures for its slate to avoid challenges, and feels relatively confident about the requirement.

The party’s choice for attorney general is health care industry lawyer Eric Settle, a former Republican from Montgomery County. For treasurer, the party wants to run Chris Foster, a former Democrat from Allegheny County who, according to his LinkedIn account, has primarily worked as a tennis pro.

“It's a doable thing,” Snyder said, noting that the party has until Aug. 1 to file. “We have a significant number of volunteers around the state and we're going to work hard at it.”

Otter said he’s seen candidates who significantly exceeded their signature threshold get kicked off due to technical problems. These issues aren’t generally fraud-related, he said — often, signers put down a zip code instead of a date, or write the address where they currently live rather than the one where they’re registered to vote.

“There's a minimum 30% error rate,” he estimated. “Realistically, you need double or triple that [minimum required signature] number.”

Snyder says the Forward Party’s larger goal happens at the polls.

It wants to qualify as a minor political party, which would allow voters here to register as members. The two non-major parties that have this status in Pennsylvania are the Green and Libertarian Parties.

To earn that status, a party’s candidate must get at least 2% of the highest statewide vote-getter’s total; they must also earn at least 2% of the top countywide vote-getter's total in a minimum of 10 counties.

For example, a statewide Forward Party candidate would have needed to win a little over 69,000 votes in 2020 — 2% of the 3.5 million votes Joe Biden received that cycle — to become a minor party the following year.

Snyder acknowledges that victory is a long shot for any non-major party. But he thinks getting on the ballot and hitting the 2% benchmark that makes the Forward Party a registration option could be an attainable goal this year.

“You're going to see incredible amounts of money spent, you're going to see unprecedented vitriol and negativity,” he said of this year’s presidential election. “We think there is an exhausted majority of people out there who are looking for the alternative that we're providing.”

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