Petition Pettifoggery and Ballot Bungling

By Sydney H. Schanberg

New York Newsday, August 29, 1986

New York is the only state in the nation where a legitimate candidate can get thrown off the ballot for the equivalent of spelling errors.

This is state committed to such heights of perfection that if you inadvertently leave out the word “each” from the cover sheet on your qualifying signature petitions, they won’t let you run for office. None of us would have made it out of elementary school if the teachers had ever stooped to such idiocies.

Who is responsible for this inane pettifoggery? The answer is that in New York, we do it big: All three branches of government are guilty — the Legislature, the courts and the governor.

It started with the election law, passed by the Legislature many years ago, which sets out in detail the rules and procedures to be followed by would-be candidates, such as the proper manner for gathering signatures.

Then came the courts, in the person of the state’s highest bench, the Court of Appeals. In a disruptive ruling in August of last year, this court threw three Conservative Party candidates off the primary ballot in Erie County on the ground that their designating petitions were fatally flawed. The reason: the petitions were for a group of candidates, not just one individual, and the court held that the cover sheet must give separate tallies of signatures for “each” candidate — even if the tallies were identical (meaning that all the people had signed for all the candidates).

The Erie Conservatives had not listed separate tallies, just the total for all three candidates, so though they had more than the required number of signatures, the Court of Appeals bounced them from the ballot. And the court has continued this attitude to excess. So far this year, with the Sept. 9 primary only a week and a half away, its obdurate stance has removed perhaps 200 candidates for party and public office in this fashion.

And it has persisted even when the evidence has been overwhelming that the signatures in a particular assembly district, for example, were meant for the entire group of candidates for assemblyman, judicial delegate and party district leader. The court will not budge from its position that the statistics and other identifying minutiae, though identical, must be repeated for each candidate.

This was the case with Albert Vann, a six-term Brooklyn assemblyman who is arguably the most influential and accomplished black political leader in the city. He was erased as a Democrat party candidate. The same heave-ho was given to another important Brooklyn assemblyman, Roger Green, a close associate of Vann. Both men will now be compelled to run solely on the Liberal Party line.

Both said on Wednesday, when the Court of Appeals refused to hear their appeal, that they will go to the federal courts to seek reinstatement as Democratic party candidates. Their constitutional rights, they argued, had been violated.

Last year, when the fateful Court of Appeals ruling, known as Pecoraro vs. Mahoney, came down, few paid attention or took it seriously. Political organizations had been filing multi-candidate petitions in the same, easily understandable form for years, and most of them went ahead in the same manner this year — to their eventual peril. When primary opponents challenged their petitions, the lower courts said their hands had been tied by Pecoraro vs. Mahoney, and the candidates began to topple.

The Court of Appeals has disdained all the criticism — from editorialists, citizens groups and politicians — about its narrowness of mind. Chief Judge Sol Wachtler says that the election law is specific, regardless of traditional practice, and that his court’s decisions have thus been equally explicit — the implication being that if the Legislature wishes a different result, it must change the law.

That is not an easy task of accomplishment. The statute was designed by political machines to preserve their prerogatives, block insurgents and protect incumbents. The results of 1986 were not imagined when it was drafted in the Legislature moons ago.

Now, the Republicans who control the State Senate have no desire or incentive to assist the Democratic-controlled Assembly in amending it. For after all, the Republicans have few primary fights and the Democrats many, and the GOP has observed that the candidates most discomfited by the present strict interpretations of the law are Democrats.

The Assembly Democrats did try to soften the statute this year by the Senate would accept only a modest change —- and, as a result of maneuvering by Gov. Cuomo’s office, even that pale outcome never got to the governor’s desk for his signature.

The governor, though a Democrat, has a personal agenda for the election law this season — keeping the wild-card candidate for the Democratic lieutenant-governor nomination, Abraham Hirschfeld, off the ballot (which he has succeeded in doing for far, on the basis of Hirschfeld election-law violations that are more serious than the piffling flaws cited in most of the cases). Cuomo wants his own choice, Rep. Stanley Lundine of Jamestown, in the No. 2 chair should the governor decide to run for president.

So, as the Legislature and Court of Appeals point fingers and blame each other for the mess, the governor stands aloof, the state’s election system is reduced to an object of ridicule and satire.

Trivial Pursuit is supposed to be a board game — not a method by which the peoples’ representatives are meant to be chosen.

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes