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Legal challenge seeks to remove MacDonald from ballot in contentious PA-12 race

Summer Lee, Bhavini Patel and Laurie MacDonald.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
The three candidates, Summer Lee (right), Bhavini Patel and Laurie MacDonald, met with one of the organizers of the Barbara Daly Danko Political Forum before they squared off on Sunday.

A legal effort is underway to remove Laurie MacDonald from the April 23 primary contest for the 12th Congressional District.

MacDonald’s candidacy should be rejected “as a result of the defects, other irregularities, and outright pattern of impropriety” contained in the petitions, alleges the complaint filed in Commonwealth Court by four Democratic voters who live in the district.

The race in District 12 has been shaping up as a contentious three-way contest, with first-term incumbent Summer Lee facing Democrats MacDonald and Bhavini Patel this spring. And although the legal challenge was filed by district voters, such matters are usually initiated by rival campaigns.

An axiom of political math is that having two challengers splits the opposition vote, which would mean the suit serves the interests of Patel rather than Lee. But the Patel campaign declined comment on the challenge Thursday. Attorney James Walsh of Pittsburgh, who filed the complaint, did not immediately return a call for comment late Tuesday afternoon. The Lee campaign also did not respond to a call.

Candidates for Congress are required to furnish petitions signed by 1,000 residents who are registered and eligible to vote in the district. But while MacDonald filed more than 130 pages of petitions containing varying numbers of signatures, the filing argues that none of those signatures is valid.

That is due to a combination of so-called “line-by-line” challenges — in which a given signature is faulted for some shortcoming — and “global” challenges in which a problem affects a broad swath of signatures. The complaint accuses MacDonald’s petitions of suffering from both.

The global challenge rests on the claim that, of the three people identified as having circulated the petitions for MacDonald, none were registered as a voter at the address provided on statements affixed to each petition. (Though a WESA review suggests one of them appears to have been registered at the address indicated last year.) Moreover, the complaint asserts that “based upon information and belief … the petitions were in fact circulated by other paid circulators,” not by those named on the petitions themselves.

The legal challenge does not provide evidence for that assertion. But the appearance of one circulator’s signature seems to vary widely on different petitions, appearing neatly lettered on some petitions and in a cruder handwriting style on others.

When WESA contacted the MacDonald campaign about that variation and other issues last week, it responded with a statement: “We are confident that we will have enough signatures to get on the ballot this April, and we far exceeded the signature requirement.”

In a follow-up statement Tuesday evening, the campaign added that "Challenging petitions is a sign of weakness on the part of my opponent — let the voters decide who is best to represent them. The others in this race need to address the issues facing our district. Not spend time and money on disenfranchising district voters. I look forward to talking to voters about how to unify our nation and get results for our community."

The court challenge also provides a slew of challenges to individual signatures, finding “numerous defective signatures, illegible signatures, signatures of unregistered voters, duplicate signatures, signatures of voters not registered in the Democratic Party, and signatures of individuals not registered at the address listed.”

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Petition-gathering is inherently a messy process, and almost no candidate’s submissions are free from error. Voters sometimes mistakenly believe they live in a district when they don’t, for example, or they forget they have signed another candidate’s petition before and are ineligible to sign again. For such reasons candidates are often advised to try to get twice as many signatures as they need, to minimize the risk of being challenged and the risk of losing the challenge.

The MacDonald campaign’s petitions include a number of red flags.

Some signature lines include check marks where address information is supposed to go. In other cases, the signer simply drew a horizontal line in the space where a signature would ordinarily be placed. One page of signatures appears to have been photocopied and included three times in the filing.

The petitions have been mocked on social media since their filing last week, and their contents surprised Chuck Pascal, an attorney who frequently handles petition challenges (though he is not involved in this case).

“I’ve been doing this [for] an awful long time, and I’ve seen petitions that violate some rule or other,” he said. “But you can do a master class on this set of petitions. I have never in my life seen the check marks. I always like when there is new stuff.”

Pascal said it didn’t surprise him if a photocopied page got mixed into the filing: “You make copies of everything, and I can see that getting mixed in by mistake.” And defective signatures can sometimes be salvaged in the case of surface defects, he added.

But in the MacDonald petitions, he said, many signatures “are so defective that you can’t even tell who these people are.”

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.