Commonwealth Court Keeps City Council Candidates On The Ballot, County Practices In Place

Oct 1, 2019

What’s in a name? For candidates in City Council District 9, the answer has been “a lot of aggravation,” as a series of recent Commonwealth Court rulings has affirmed they can all remain on the ballot.

Taken together, the rulings also largely uphold some standard practices by county election workers.

District 9 includes Homewood and other East End communities. Incumbent City Councilor Ricky Burgess is facing three challengers, all running without major party support, on the November ballot. But Barbara Daniels, Randall Taylor, and DeNeice Welch have been locked in a legal struggle over who gets to use the label “independent” to describe themselves on the ballot itself. Under state law, candidates can’t pick a label that is "identical with or deceptively similar to" one used by a candidate who’s filed nomination papers already. (Burgess will be listed as a Democrat since he won the May primary.) 

Randall Taylor was the first to file his nominating petitions this summer, and listed himself as an independent. When Daniels and Welch filed their papers a day later, election workers told them to scratch out the “independent” label and pick something unique. Daniels chose “Campaign for Compassion” while Welch went with “Citizens for Welch.” That prompted a lawsuit from Taylor’s camp, which said the two women should be removed, because election law also bars candidates from making material changes to petitions after they’d been signed.

Taylor himself was then targeted with a complaint that said he wasn’t entitled to the “independent” label: Signatures on his initial petitions were flawed, and that by the time he filed enough valid ones, Welch had already turned in her completed forms.

Allegheny County Judge Joseph James dismissed those complaints, and the plaintiffs in all three appealed. Late last week and early this week, a three-member panel of the state’s Commonwealth Court largely upheld his rulings.

On Friday, Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer ruled that Welch could remain on the ballot, with the label “Citizens for Welch.” Taylor’s attorney had argued a candidate could change the party label to reflect a position that petition signers might not agree with. Jubelirer acknowledged the concern but said that in this case, the court “cannot say the change from ‘Independent’ to ‘Citizens for Welch’ would have affected the signers’ decision to sign the Nomination Papers.”

It was a slightly different story for Daniels. Jubelirer wrote that the “Campaign for Compassion” label “bears no obvious relationship to either the originally circulated political body name or the candidate.” While Jubelirer said there was nothing to suggest Daniels had meant to deceive anyone, such a practice “invites confusion or potential deception.”

Still, because Daniels hadn’t acted in bad faith – and because election law tilts in favor of putting candidates on the ballot – the court allowed Daniels to change her party name. She did so Tuesday, submitting a letter to the county asking to be labeled the “Community for Daniels” candidate.

“This is still a campaign for compassion, because that’s what District 9 deserves,” Daniels said Wednesday. She did, however, sound less than entirely compassionate toward one of her rivals.

“I’ve lost respect for Randall Taylor,” she said. “If you really cared about this community, why would you take us back and forth to court like this?”

As for the complaint against Taylor’s bid, another Commonwealth Court Judge, Patricia McCullough, allowed him to remain on the ballot as an independent. The voter who filed the complaint, Owen Cauley, argued that Taylor’s original petition contained enough obvious errors – like the fact that several petition signers gave a home address outside the city of Pittsburgh – that county election officials should have rejected them at the counter. Had they done so, Welch could have filed her petitions before Taylor returned – and she would be the independent.

County officials give petitions a cursory review to make sure a candidate has enough signatures to qualify – a process that involves little more than counting up the number of completed signature lines to ensure they meet the required minimum. “Given the severe time constraints involved in election matters,” McCullough wrote, asking election workers to do more “would impose an impossible and unreasonable burden on the personnel” in an elections office.

McCullough’s ruling leaves it to rival candidates and voters to do a more rigorous examination of petition signatures. The other rulings, meanwhile, preserve a long-standing practice of workers urging candidates to tweak their petitions should they chose political labels too similar to someone else’s

Allan Opsitnick, a lawyer for the county’s election department, said he “was heartened that Commonwealth Court saw what the election workers were doing.” But he added that “at some point, we’re going to look at our practices and see what could be done better.”