In re Nomination of Flaherty

Decision Date08 May 2001
Citation770 A.2d 327,564 Pa. 671
PartiesIn re NOMINATION Petition OF Mary FLAHERTY for Office of Judge of the Commonwealth Court. Appeal of John A. Hanna.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

Linda M. Martin, Ralph J. Teti, Philadelphia, Karen M. Balaban, for John A. Hanna.

Michael E. Flaherty, Carnegie, Mary R. Catherine Flaherty, for Mary Flaherty.

Before FLAHERTY, C.J., and ZAPPALA, CAPPY, CASTILLE, NIGRO, NEWMAN and SAYLOR, JJ.

OPINION OF THE COURT

NIGRO, Justice.

Appellant, John A. Hanna, appeals from an order of the Commonwealth Court which dismissed his petition to set aside the nomination petition of Mary Flaherty ("Candidate"), a candidate for the primary election for the Democratic nomination for Judge of the Commonwealth Court.1 For the reasons set forth below, we reverse the decision of the Commonwealth Court and set aside Candidate's nomination petition for failure to comply with the five county requirement of Section 912.1(10) of the Election Code, 25 P.S. § 2872.1.

On March 6, 2001, Candidate filed a nomination petition with the Secretary of the Commonwealth which allegedly contained 1,912 valid signatures of registered and enrolled electors of the Democratic Party residing in the Commonwealth, including over one hundred signatures from electors residing in each of the following seven counties: Allegheny, Beaver, Erie, Montour, Philadelphia, Washington, and Westmoreland. Subsequently, on March 13, 2001, Appellant filed a petition to set aside Candidate's nomination petition with the Commonwealth Court. In his petition, Appellant challenged the validity of numerous signatures collected by Candidate as well as the circulator affidavits on several signature petition pages signed by Candidate and her assistants.2 Based on these challenges, Appellant argued that Candidate's nomination petition did not contain one thousand valid signatures from electors throughout the Commonwealth or one hundred valid signatures from electors in each of five counties of the Commonwealth, as required by Section 912.1(10) of the Election Code, 25 P.S. § 2872.1.3

The Commonwealth Court conducted a full hearing over the course of several days, and on March 30, 2001, the court issued a memorandum opinion and order directing the Secretary of the Commonwealth to certify that Candidate's name be placed on the ballot for the May 15, 2001 primary election for the Democratic nomination for Judge of the Commonwealth Court. In concluding that certification was proper, the Commonwealth Court first found that Candidate's nomination petition met the quota of one thousand valid signatures because Appellant had not pursued sufficient challenges to the 1,910 signatures on Candidate's petition to bring the total number of signatures below the 1,000 minimum requirement.

As for Appellant's challenge involving the five county requirement, the court noted that Candidate's nomination petition contained over one hundred signatures from electors residing in each of seven counties and that at least one hundred signatures from electors located in each of the four counties of Allegheny, Beaver, Washington, and Westmoreland had not been challenged by Appellant. Given that Candidate's nomination petition had four counties with over one hundred uncontested signatures, the court observed that in order to prove that Candidate's nomination petition should be set aside for failure to meet the five county requirement, Appellant had to establish that Candidate's nomination petition did not actually contain one hundred valid signatures from electors residing in each of the counties of Erie, Philadelphia, and Montour, i.e., the three remaining counties out of the seven counties that Candidate claimed to have one hundred valid electors' signatures listed in her nomination petition.

Candidate stipulated that several of the signatures from electors in Montour County were invalid and as a result, the court found that her nomination petition contained less than one hundred valid signatures by electors in Montour County. Candidate further conceded that a significant number of signatures by electors in Erie and Philadelphia counties should be removed. After factoring in the signatures conceded by Candidate to be invalid, the Commonwealth Court then reviewed the contested signatures by electors residing in Erie and Philadelphia counties. The court agreed with Appellant that many of the signatures had to be struck from Candidate's nomination petition for various reasons.4 Nevertheless, in spite of the signatures that were stricken, the court ultimately calculated that Candidate's nomination petition contained 115 valid signatures by electors from Erie County and 110 valid signatures by electors from Philadelphia County. Thus, the court found that Candidate's nomination petition satisfied the five county requirement of Section 912.1(10) of the Election Code as it contained one hundred signatures from six counties. Consequently, the court directed the Secretary of the Commonwealth to certify that Candidate's name be placed on the ballot.

On appeal to this Court, Appellant argues that the Commonwealth Court erred in overruling objections to a total of twenty signatures by electors in Erie County and a total of sixteen signatures by electors in Philadelphia county.5 We agree with Appellant that eighteen signatures by electors from Erie County and eleven signatures by electors from Philadelphia County must be stricken. As a result, Candidate's nomination petition contains only 97 valid signatures by electors in Erie County and 99 valid signatures by electors from Philadelphia County, thereby falling short of the one hundred valid signatures from five counties needed to place a candidate's name on the ballot.

In reviewing the order of the trial court concerning the validity of challenges to a nomination petition, our standard of review is whether the findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, whether there was an abuse of discretion, or whether errors of law were committed. In re Certificate of Nomination of 143rd Legislative District, 535 Pa. 2, 634 A.2d 155 (1993). The Election Code must also be liberally construed in order to protect a candidate's right to run for office and the voters' rights to elect the candidate of their choice. In re Nomination Petition of Wesley, 536 Pa. 609, 613, 640 A.2d 1247, 1249 (1994). A party alleging the defects in a nominating petition has the burden of proving such. In re Nomination Petition of Johnson, 509 Pa. 347, 502 A.2d 142 (1985); In re Nomination Petition of Wagner, 102 Pa.Commw. 174, 516 A.2d 1276 (1986), aff'd, 510 Pa. 584, 511 A.2d 754 (1986). Where the court is not convinced that challenged signatures are other than genuine, the challenge is to be resolved in favor of the candidate. In re Nomination Petition of Thompson, 102 Pa.Commw. 110, 120-21, 516 A.2d 1278, 1283 (1984).

Appellant initially claims that the Commonwealth Court failed to strike the names of two electors from Erie County, Lawrence Droney (p. 43, line 2) and Kathleen Sharples (p. 50, line 7), and one name of an elector in Philadelphia County, Stacey Powell (p. 8, line 7), on account of the fact that these three electors printed their names on Candidate's nomination petition, rather than writing their names in cursive. We agree with Appellant that these three names must be removed.

Section 908 of the Election Code directs that all electors shall sign their name to a candidate's nomination petition. 25 P.S. § 2868; In re Nomination Petition of Silcox, 543 Pa. 647, 647, 674 A.2d 224, 225 (1996).6 Electors are required to sign their name to a candidate's nomination petition as a means of preventing forgery and assuring that each elector personally signs the petition with an understanding of what he is signing. Following each election, the registration commission has the duty of comparing a voter's signature upon voting with the voter's signature on file with the district registrar in order to assure that the voter's signature is genuine. 25 P.S. § 961.702. An elector's name will be stricken where the elector prints his name upon a candidate's nomination petition so that it does not match his signature on his voter registration card. In re Nomination Petition of Cooper, 163 Pa. Commw. 430, 447, 643 A.2d 717, 725 (1994).

Here, in overruling Appellant's objection to Lawrence Droney's printed signature, the Commonwealth Court noted that although Mr. Droney had signed his name in cursive on his original registration card in 1947, Mr. Droney was eighty-one years old at the time he printed his name on the petition and his printed signature was consistent with that of an elderly person. While this may be the case, the fact remains that Mr. Droney's printed signature on Candidate's nomination petition did not match his name as signed on his voter registration card and therefore, his name must be removed from the petition. See In re Cooper, 163 Pa.Commw. at 447, 643 A.2d at 725.7

The Commonwealth Court also refused to strike Kathleen Sharples' printed signature. In Kathleen Sharples' case, the court found that although Ms. Sharples' signature had at one time been affixed by adhesive tape to her voter registration card, it had since become unattached from her registration card, thereby making it impossible for the court to compare her printed signature to her registered signature. Given the possibility that Ms. Sharples' printed signature may have matched her signature on her voter registration card, the court declined to remove her printed name from the petition. We disagree, and instead find that the Commonwealth Court erred in failing to strike Kathleen Sharples' printed signature.

Initially, we note that electors have a responsibility, as where an elector moves to a new address, to contact the registration commission and obtain a new registration card when their card is damaged or destroyed. In any event, we...

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