Friday, October 08, 2004

Nader Ballot Petitions Present a Phone Book Full of Problems

The New York Times
October 8, 2004

Nader Ballot Petitions Present a Phone Book Full of Problems

PHILADELPHIA, Oct. 7 - In the rush to collect enough signatures to put Ralph Nader on the ballot in the swing state Pennsylvania, one father and son signed the petitions 60 times between them. Other names were paired with addresses that do not exist - unless, as a judge noted, they are in the middle of the Delaware River.

In four courtrooms in this city alone on Thursday, a team of judges tried to sort it all out, puzzling over hundreds of names to determine whether Mr. Nader should appear on thousands of ballots waiting to be printed and sent out.

"I can't allow this dispute to disrupt an election throughout the entire commonwealth," the president judge of Commonwealth Court, James G. Colins, declared in a courtroom where he has been examining signatures for two weeks. "I'm getting calls from counties, from election officials and judges. We have to move along."

Ralph Nader's access to the ballot has been a hard-fought battle in state after state, with Republicans helping him in hopes that he will steal votes from John Kerry, and Democrats pulling out the stops to prevent that. But no effort has been as complicated and fraud-ridden as the one here, with judges across the state examining more than 40,000 signatures that challengers have said are forged or otherwise invalid.

Already judges have declared invalid about 10,000 signatures collected statewide for Mr. Nader, and there are still 25,000 to be ruled on here in Philadelphia. Judge Colins has said he expects some 70 percent of the city signatures to be declared illegal.

Mr. Nader needs 25,697 signatures to qualify for the Pennsylvania ballot.

If there are no hanging chads, there is a black crayon, as well as handwriting experts, magnifying glasses and plenty of chaos. Two of Mr. Nader's lawyers have quit, and while he does have several Republicans running between courtrooms on his behalf, he has had to rely on the occasional law student to make his case. A group of homeless people is suing the campaign, claiming they were not paid the money they were promised for collecting signatures.

The Nader campaign, in turn, accuses Democrats of stealing blank petitions, then paying homeless people twice as much to fill them in with fake names.

To examine the thousands of disputed petitions, the Commonwealth Court in Philadelphia has had to summon a judge from another county and open two makeshift courtrooms, and judges have worked until midnight several nights in a row, squinting at scribbled signatures to decipher names and addresses that in many cases do not exist.

Elections officials, already struggling to deal with an unexpected surge in voter registrations, complain that they are up against tight deadlines for printing and sending out absentee ballots.

Mr. Nader's campaign and the Democrats fighting him here agree that this battle is crucial; in polls Mr. Nader has had support as high as 4 percent in Pennsylvania, a state Al Gore won only narrowly in 2000.

The Nader campaign, which hired people to collect signatures, insists that it is the victim and that the fraudulent signatures are the result of sabotage, though it has no evidence beyond a story from one homeless man who said Democrats offered him double the pay the Nader campaign did for signatures.

"We're seeing the results of a plan that was hatched by the Democrats, and now all the king's horses and all the king's men and all the king's lawyers are being brought in to prevent Ralph Nader from getting on the ballot," said Basil Culyba, a lawyer for Mr. Nader.

The Democrats, however, accuse Mr. Nader of knowingly committing fraud. While it is not illegal to pay people to collect signatures, lawyers argue that the campaign submitted signatures despite knowing that the people who collected them had simply copied names, alphabetically, from the phone book.

"We think that signing papers to get someone on the ballot is a sacred process, and people ought to follow the law," said Efrem Grail, a lawyer on the team that disputed signatures in Pittsburgh. "Ralph Nader ought to know better. And you know what, he does know better."

Mr. Nader is now on the ballot in more than 30 states, and fighting in courts in 10 states. In Ohio, more than half the 5,000 signatures he needed to get on the ballot were ruled invalid, in several cases because of forged signatures, and in Oregon, about two dozen voters signed statements saying their names were on petitions they did not sign.

But there has been nothing on the scale of the fraudulent signatures here. In Pennsylvania, candidates had from mid-February to Aug. 2 to collect signatures, but when Dan Martino, the state campaign coordinator, took his job on June 18, he testified, the campaign had collected only 1,500.

Mr. Martino phoned the campaign's Washington headquarters, he testified, and warned that it had to hire professionals as it had in other states. They called John Slevin, the owner of ElectionGypsies, a small firm in Oregon. Mr. Slevin sent one associate to Pittsburgh and opened an office himself here on Chestnut Street in early July. He put out a notice in Center City: "CASH NOW!" He promised the chance to earn $100 to $200 a day, giving 75 cents each for the first 300 signatures, a dollar for each one after that.

Within a month, the campaign turned in about 52,000 signatures. In mid-August the Commonwealth Court knocked Mr. Nader off the ballot, saying state law prevented him from running as an independent when he was a Reform Party candidate in other states. The State Supreme Court reversed that decision in late August and ordered the lower court to examine the next challenge: the charge that 41,000 signatures - about 9,000 in Pittsburgh and 30,000 in Philadelphia - were invalid.

In Pittsburgh, about 6,000 signatures were declared invalid when the examination ended earlier this week. Here in Philadelphia, one of the most devastating admissions came last week, when Mr. Martino was asked about an article in The Philadelphia Weekly in which one of the homeless men, Ed Seip, complained that Mr. Slevin had not paid him. Mr. Slevin was quoted as saying that Mr. Seip had committed "voter fraud" and that many of the people hired were simply writing in names they took from the phone book, alphabetically.

Mr. Martino acknowledged under oath that he had known about the case but that the campaign had submitted signatures collected by Mr. Seip anyway. Mr. Martino also told the court that Mr. Slevin had used a black crayon to strike out apparently fraudulent signatures before submitting them.

Gregory Harvey, a lawyer challenging the signatures, asked why the campaign submitted some petitions on which only half the names were crossed out in crayon, when it was clear the entire page had been forged, apparently by a group of people sitting around a table taking turns signing. Mr. Martino said the campaign simply did not have enough people to go through all the petitions. "We just didn't have the staff," he testified.

Mr. Slevin could not be reached for comment; a voice mailbox at a phone number he provided in an e-mail message was full.

In a sampling done in late August, Mr. Nader's lawyers acknowledged that 70 percent of the Philadelphia signatures were flawed - that voters were not registered or did not exist. About the same percentage have proved invalid in court.

"We know that if present trends continue, your client will not have the required amount of signatures," Judge Colins told Mr. Culyba on Thursday.

Still, the examination continued. The judge and an elections official held up magnifying glasses to ballots, checking all different possible spellings for names and addresses that might be indicated by scribbles.

The judge has promised to finish by Tuesday, if it means working around the clock, so that county officials who are waiting can send out the proper absentee ballots.

Mr. Martino and Kevin Zeese, a spokesman for Mr. Nader in Washington, said Thursday they would appeal if the court refused to put Mr. Nader on the ballot.

Lawyers challenging the campaign insisted that Mr. Nader was using the kind of loopholes he has crusaded against since "Unsafe at Any Cost."

"It's fun to think what a book about this case might be called," one of the lawyers, Daniel Booker, said. "Maybe, 'They'll Never Catch Us.' "