If you don’t like how the politicians run things, run for office yourself.

This might sound like a great idea until you try to get on the ballot. In order to do so in New York state, petitions must be circulated and a certain number of signatures (depending on the office you’re running for) must be obtained. Signature-gathering season comes early now: this year, the first day to be out and about was Feb. 25, and those signature-gatherers hardy and intrepid enough to venture out had to tread very carefully on a thick layer of ice. A dangerous undertaking, and not many people are willing to go door-to-door in that kind of weather.

Getting enough signatures is tough if you don’t have the support of the party machine, but staying on the ballot is tougher. When a candidate files his petitions with the Board of Elections, their validity is often challenged, in order to knock the candidate off the ballot before the voters get a chance to vote for him. It is easy enough to have signatures declared invalid. For example, if a signer writes (village of) St. Regis Falls instead of (town of ) Waverly in his address, his signature is invalid. An independent voter’s signature is always invalid on a Republican or Democratic petition, which means that approximately 30% of New York voters cannot sign petitions for party candidates, nor can they vote for them in a primary, but must wait till November and vote for one of the candidates the party bosses have chosen.

Besides the challenge at the Board of Elections, an action to knock the candidate off the ballot can be brought in the state Supreme Court. The strategy of the party-machine attorney is normally to throw as much mud at the candidate as possible and hope that the judge allows some of it to stick. If the candidate cannot afford to spend tens of thousands of dollars on attorney’s fees to fight these challenges, he can wave his candidacy goodbye.

How to fix the system? Abolish it. The petition system can never be reformed, because it is too susceptible to abuse by experts in perversion of the law. A sensible alternative would be a filing fee, which is already in use in many states. With a filing-fee system, grassroots candidates would be able to concentrate on getting their message out to the voters instead of wasting time and money fighting challenges to their petitions by well-funded party-machine candidates.

New York’s top election-law attorney, Jerry Goldfeder, the man who literally wrote the book (Goldfeder’s Modern Election Law), has been trying for the past 30 years to replace the petition process with a filing fee. “If the whole process were abolished today and I never made another cent as an election lawyer, I couldn’t be happier,” he has said. But the stranglehold on ballot access by the Republican and Democratic machines has till now proved too strong to break.

It must be admitted that the current petition system seems to be less of a barrier to Democratic grassroots candidates than to Republican. Perhaps this is because liberals are more open to new ideas and new people than are conservatives. The New York state GOP does precious little outreach and makes hardly any effort to increase party enrollment. For this reason, the party has been in a death spiral for many years.

There is some truth to the stereotype of the dour New York Republican sulking in his armchair with his glass of gin as he watches Fox News. And indeed he does have more to sulk about than his counterpart in other states, because the success of the Republican Party on the national level is inversely mirrored by its decay in New York State. The party lost eight state Senate seats in 2018, and many GOP senators have announced they will not seek reelection this year, Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan being the latest one. Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins has gleefully boasted that her fellow Democrats are assured a supermajority in the Senate (they already have one in the Assembly) next year, which will enable them to override the governor’s vetoes and so out-Cuomo Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

Perhaps Stewart-Cousins’ hopes will be realized and the New York state GOP will reach its nadir this November. But such a catastrophe could serve a good purpose if it galvanizes the party into getting its house in order by purging itself of its defeatist elements and letting a good deal of vivifying grassroots blood into its veins.

In the meantime, a bipartisan effort is needed to replace the petition system with filing-fee access to the ballot, in order to give full enfranchisement to the voters of both parties in New York State.

Kevin Beary of Colton filed petitions to run in the Republican primary for the 45th Senate District seat that will become vacant at the end of the year due to the retirement of longtime Sen. Betty Little. His campaign ended when the state Board of Elections disqualified nearly half the signatures he had collected on his nominating petitions.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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