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Can we end this duopoly?

In commonwealth elections, Pennsylvanians (or at least those registered to vote) usually seem to vote for the lesser of two evils -- or for just one evil if an entrenched incumbent is not challenged by a sacrificial lamb from the other party.

It's hardly a surprise that voter apathy is a given in the electoral process, especially if the disenchanted disenfranchised are unaware that the last word in the first sentence should be the plural of "party."

The so-called two-party system really is a duopoly since the Republican and Democrat parties have a virtual monopoly on local, state and federal government. But there are other political parties such as the Libertarian (my favorite), Constitution and Green. And who knows how many more could have flourished if the state Constitution requirement had been heeded that elections be free and equal.

And that is one more reason why the state Legislature is being forced by so-called third parties to look at ballot-access laws.

Making ballot access extremely difficult for their competitors ensures that the duopoly seldom is challenged. The race for governor between Gov. Ed Rendell and Lynn Swann, his Republican opponent -- two miserable choices for governor -- probably will not include independent candidate Russ Diamond.

To be on this year's ballot Mr. Diamond needs more than 100,000 signatures on his petitions to ensure that there will be roughly 67,000 valid ones mandated by the state law.

Rendell and Swann each need to collect 2,000 signatures to be on the ballot. Diamond believes he can get the 100,000 by the Aug. 1 deadline even though he now has only about 5,000.

"It is draconian," Diamond says. "It's really high."

And that's why Rep. Paul Clymer, R-Bucks County and chairman of the House State Government Committee, is getting an earful from frustrated members of third parties to do something about the laws that are anything but free and equal.

"The complaint was a fair one," Mr. Clymer said. He and his staff discussed a wide range of alternatives without specific recommendations other than a proposed ceiling of 45,000 of needed signatures. Clymer is planning to introduce his reform bill on Wednesday. "We are looking for further ideas and recommendations," he said.

Libertarian Ken Krawchuck, the party candidate in the last gubernatorial election, is not very optimistic. "We are looking for fair and equal, what the Constitution says," says Mr. Krawchuck. "Capping us (third parties and independent candidates) at 23 times the number of signatures they need is not equal."

The ballot access laws in neighboring Delaware are pretty close to fair and equal. A few hundred signatures on your petition and ballot access you have. "If it's OK for Delaware, it's OK for Pennsylvania," Krawchuck says.

Clymer says he welcomes input about the ballot-access bill he will introduce. Letters, phone calls, e-mail, smoke signals and whatever else Pennsylvanians need to make the point should be sent to him.

But don't think the entire Legislature is as open-minded as Clymer seems to be. There is a bill floating around the House that would shorten by a month the time needed for candidates to gather signatures.

Fair and equal ballot access will mean that someday Pennsylvanians could vote for the greater, and maybe the greatest, good.

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