After years of complaints that the rules were stacked against them, third-party and independent hopefuls will have an easier time running for office in Pennsylvania.

An agreement ending a long-standing federal lawsuit, approved by a judge last week, includes a provision that such candidates won't need nearly as many petition signatures as they have in the past to qualify for the ballot.

The odds against the election of the likes of Dale Kerns, a Libertarian who wants to end the war on drugs, bring U.S. troops home, and impose term limits on politicians — all by taking the U.S. Senate seat now held by Democrat Bob Casey — remain formidable.

But his prospects for appearing on the ballot, giving him a chance, just improved dramatically.

"If I'm not spending months on end trying to fight to get on the ballot," said Kerns, who appeared recently at an event in Bucks County, "well then we can spend all of our time campaigning and talking about the ideas with voters and debating with each other, so that the election is actually what it's supposed to be."

Historically, the petition requirements for third-party aspirants have been far stiffer than those for Democrats and Republicans in Pennsylvania.

Democrats and Republicans never had to get more than 2,000 signatures no matter what office they were seeking. Independents and minor-party candidates had to collect much more than that — sometimes more than 30 times that amount, depending on the office.

For U.S. senator, governor, or state row offices, the total had to match at least 2 percent of the votes cast for the top statewide vote-getter in the last general election. In Kerns' case, that would have been more than 60,000. Plus, Kerns could have been on the hook for sky-high legal costs.

The court agreement caps the signature requirement at 5,000 for third-party candidates. They also no longer will have to pay for legal challenges, which in the past have run in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Andrea Dames (left) and Lori Parker speak with Dale Kerns, a Libertarian candidate for U.S. Senate, at an event at Bucks County Community College.
William Thomas Cain
Andrea Dames (left) and Lori Parker speak with Dale Kerns, a Libertarian candidate for U.S. Senate, at an event at Bucks County Community College.

How the old system drained third-party aspirants of time, energy, and cash

Why were third-party candidates placed at such a disadvantage? Democrats and Republicans must win a primary election to get on the November ballot, the Pennsylvania Department of State reasoned, while other candidates are guaranteed a spot once they meet the signature requirements.

But those requirements were onerous, the candidates said.

Not only did candidates have to collect large numbers of signatures. Democrats and Republicans could challenge the validity of those signatures on various, often technical, grounds. This forced the outsiders to obtain far more than the required number because some of them would be disqualified.

"You spend your time and money getting their signatures, then you have to spend the next month or two, after they challenge you, trying to prove that you're innocent," said Tom Lingenfelter, who ran with various parties over the years and recalled being kept off the ballot 11 times after his signatures were challenged.

And — this part left third parties fuming — the major parties could then force the candidates to pay legal fees for the signature challenges.

A Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate had so many signatures challenged in 2006 that he was knocked off the ballot and left with a bill of $80,407, or close to $100,000 in today's dollars.

"I'm just a regular working guy! I don't have $80,000 laying around," said the candidate, Carl Romanelli, 58, of Wilkes-Barre. "And if I did, it certainly wouldn't be for them." In the end, circumstances intervened and no one came to collect, he said, "but I was really scared."

That threat of high legal costs scared off potential third-party and independent candidates, Romanelli and others said. "To have these bullies come in and put a lien on your home, or a judgment on your bank account, or your grandma's estate or something, that's just ice-cold wrong and un-American," Romanelli said.

So Romanelli, along with other candidates and the state Constitution, Green, and Libertarian Parties, sued in 2012, saying Pennsylvania's ballot-access requirements were unconstitutional.

The parties in the suit negotiated and ultimately agreed to the new numbers. Democratic and Republican Party officials were unavailable for comment.

A ‘win for the people’; will third-party candidates capitalize on it?

"This is a huge win," said Sheri Miller, the chair of the Green Party of Pennsylvania. "And it's not just a win for the Green Party, it's a win for the Libertarians and Constitution Party and independents and, really, it's a win for the people of Pennsylvania to be able to have choices in their election."

But in a system that favors the better-financed and -branded major party nominees, Miller and others said the agreement is more of a step forward than a cosmic shift.

"It doesn't automatically mean we're going to become a multiparty state," said Michael G. Hagen, a political science professor at Temple University.

That's because getting on the ballot is just one problem for third parties and independent candidates.

"The status quo is hard to change, even if the rules change," Hagen said. "The vast majority of Pennsylvanians think of themselves as Democrats or as Republicans, and that's not likely to change rapidly. The vast majority of the money that's contributed to candidates and parties goes to Democratic and Republican candidates, and that's not likely to change rapidly."

Miller said the next steps include debate invitations for all candidates and campaign-finance reform. "The whole system really needs to be worked on, if we really want to have true representative democracy. But this is a huge step in that process."

Walking around the auditorium of Bucks County Community College in Newtown as part of a statewide recovery advocacy tour, Kerns discussed his stance on drugs (legalize everything) and his prospective Senate candidacy.

One group of women said they had been following Kerns online, but meeting him in person further piqued their interest in a candidate from a party they had never before considered.

"I was following him a little bit online before today, but I think that this definitely has changed my mind," said Andrea Dames, 48, of Langhorne. "I never thought about independent as opposed to a traditional candidate, but I think, yeah, we've got plenty to change."

Third-party officials hope moments like these, one handshake at a time, will create a groundswell of support for alternative candidates that results in structural change to the state's political landscape.

"I'm just learning that there are other candidates out there," said Ann Smart, 56, of Garnet Valley. " It's not just the two anymore, you know?"