Three candidates seeking to challenge Pittsburgh City Councilor Ricky Burgess in District 9 this November are arguing over who gets to call themselves an independent.
Candidates who run on their own, without a party behind them, get to customize the label that appears alongside their name on the fall ballot. This year’s ballot, for example, will feature a Woodland Hills school board hopeful running on the “Independent Woman” ticket. But under state law, the name they pick can't be "identical with or deceptively similar to" words used by other political bodies which already had filed nomination papers.
That’s a problem in District 9, which consists of Homewood, East Liberty, and other East End communities. No less than three of Burgess' four would-be rivals sought to carry the banner of "Independent," and used that label when they circulated petitions for voters to sign.
Randall Taylor was the first candidate to submit paperwork under the "Independent" label, which he did on July 31, and he followed that up with additional signatures on Aug. 1. Two other candidates, DeNeice Welch and Barbara Daniels, filed petitions that identified them as "Independent," after Taylor's initial filing.
But when Welch and Daniels brought their petitions to the county elections office, “I instructed them to change their party,” said Dave Voye, who manages the county elections office.
“It’s going to be up to the judge whether I did the wrong thing," Voye said, "but I knew that I could not accept that second [filing] with the same party name on it" after Taylor used it first.
Welch changed her campaign name to “Citizens for Welch;” Daniels redubbed her effort “Campaign for Compassion.” But now legal challenges have been filed by a district voter against both candidates, arguing that under state election law, an election petition also can't be accepted if “it contains material alterations made after signing without the consent of a signer."
Voye says county officials have urged similar changes before.
“It doesn’t happen very often, but we’ve done it before and never been called out on it,” Voye said.
There is no simple alternative. When candidates circulate their petitions, they may not know who else is seeking to enter the race, or what label those other candidates might use. By the time a candidate figures out that someone else signed up as an “Independent” first, it may be too late to circulate new petitions.
On the other hand, Taylor said, voters have a right to know exactly what they are signing, and what they are signing up for.
“You could circulate a petition for ‘Citizens for Chris,’ and then change it to ‘Pedophiles for Chris,’” said Taylor.
Allan Opsitnick, who acts as solicitor for the elections office, said "I'm not aware of any case law on this. I know there's been none in Allegheny County in the 35 years I've been involved with election law."
Taylor, meanwhile, is having his own status as an “Independent” challenged. A legal complaint naming him alleges that some of the signatures on Taylor’s July 31 filing are defective, and that it lacks the 100 signatures needed to qualify on the ballot for City Council. Even if his additional filing the next day got him above the threshold, the suit argues, Welch had by that point filed her own paperwork. And since that filing was complete, it argues, she's the one with prior claim on the "Independent" label.
"Taylor's [second filing] should be set aside as it designates his political body as independent, when Welch was the first candidate to do so legally," it asserts, reversing the claims made on Taylor's behalf in the other complaints.
When petitions are turned in, Voye said, county election workers “make sure they are facially correct” – a brief review that mostly involves assuring that the number of signatures meets the minimum required to seek the office. The signatures themselves may later prove illegitimate: some could be forged, or represent people who are ineligible to vote in a race. But county workers don’t make that determination when they are turned in; it’s up to a voter or a rival campaign to challenge the petitions in court.
Taylor calls the complaint "frivolous" and notes that there is no law that prevents a candidate from filing supplemental petitions, and that his initial filing passed the test of county workers. That should qualify him as an independent candidate, he said, while the fact that other candidates altered their petitions should disqualify them from appearing on the ballot at all.
Otherwise, he said, “We’re not going to get to take on this incumbent one-on-one.”
Councilman Burgess has benefited from split opposition repeatedly in the past. In this spring's Democratic primary, he garnered less than 40 percent of the vote but eked out a win because he faced multiple opponents.
Another District 9 candidate, Prince Matthews, was challenged on the grounds that he failed to change his registration from Democratic in time, a necessary step for candidates who want to run outside the two-party sytsem. Matthews told WESA just days after filing his papers that he intended to withdraw and support Taylor. That had not happened as of an Aug. 8 deadline, though he could back out during the court challenge.
No date has been set for hearing the petition challenges, though attorneys expect Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Joseph James to hear the matters at the end of August.