It is easy to express outrage against the system by which candidates in New York gather signatures from the public on "nominating petitions" in order to get on the ballot â€“ and then are kicked off the ballot when their opponents challenge those petitions on legal technicalities.
Attorney General Eliot Spitzer expressed outrage in 2001, when his office issued a report (in pdf format) that concluded “New York State has the most confusing, stringent and needless petition requirements for ballot access.”
Mayor Michael Bloomberg expressed outrage in 2004. “It’s become a whole cottage industry...you don’t have to beat the other guy based on positions or your ability to serve, all you gotta do is beat him because you got a better lawyer who can get him thrown off the ballot,” Bloomberg said. "I think it's time to end this 'gotcha' kind of technique, where lawyers comb petitions to find some technical violation."
Why the system persists might be explained by the news from Bloomberg’s campaign, shortly after the deadline for filing the petitions this month, that Michael Bloomberg would be challenging the signatures in the nominating petitions of Republican rival Thomas Ognibene, reportedly “hoping to keep Ognibene off the ballot and avoid a GOP primary.” Yes, the same Michael Bloomberg, just eight months later.
"In New York, politics is a blood sport," said election lawyer Henry Berger. (See “Ballot Bumping In New York”)
Running for virtually any political office in the country requires demonstrating some form of citizen support in order to protect the ballot from being flooded with frivolous candidacies. In New York, this support is established by gathering signatures from registered voters in the district in which the candidate is running.
The New York election laws that require candidates to collect signatures dates back to the late 19th century, when they were first implemented in an attempt to break the control political parties had over the nomination process. Before their implementation, the only way candidates could get on the ballot was by receiving the support of the party machine.
The new laws were meant to allow a way for insurgent candidates to run for office.
Today the law requires candidates running for citywide office to collect 7,500 signatures within a span of 37 days. Borough-wide candidates need to collect 4,000 and City Council candidates need 900.
Rather than ensuring that those without the support of the machine can still seek office, these laws wind up restricting the options that voters have when they go to the ballot box on Election Day.
An Unnecessary Obstacle?
New York is one of only 13 states to set a petition requirement as the sole means of getting on the ballot; most states allow candidates to pay a filing fee in lieu of accumulating signatures. New York also allows the shortest period of time in which to gather those signatures, a mere 37 days, compared to the more than a year allowed in Michigan, and the unlimited time period in six other states, including New Jersey.
And the number of signatures required to get on a ballot in New York is way out of line with other states: In California, to get on the ballot even for governor requires only 65 signatures.
What the larger signature requirement often shows is not how much actual citizen support candidates have, but how much money they have to pay people to gather the signatures.
In search of larger and larger total signature numbers, many candidates find themselves eventually employing paid petitioners to hawk their candidacy. Of the major mayoral candidates, only Anthony Weiner employed an entirely volunteer, grassroots effort. He cites the superiority of this approach, claiming that paid petitioners are “mercenaries, whereas the people who collect our petitions are very animated about our campaign.”
Those with the backing of the local party organizations and labor unions typically have a huge advantage in the process. Those without such endorsements need to build their own field operation to gather the signatures, or roll up their sleeves and collect them themselves.
For incumbents and established politicos, reaching the threshold is often not a problem. The difference between the 40,000 signatures that Anthony Weiner gathered and the 158,000 that Gifford Miller’s operation gathered is more or less meaningless to the process.
However, for insurgent candidates in municipal races these petitions are deadly serious; the slightest errors in their compilation could lead to the would-be officeholder being stricken from the ballot.
The Signature Challenge
“Its absurd to me,” exclaimed Gur Tsabar, a candidate running for City Council in the second district, which includes the Lower East Side, during a press conference he called to blast the ballot-bumping there. “Political clubs are deciding who will appear on the ballot, not the residents of the district.”
By law, any candidate or any voter from the district or political jurisdiction may challenge a candidate’s petition signatures, claiming that, for one reason or another, the signatures are not valid. Incumbent office holders and candidates with party backing have seized on this process to mount challenges as a way to minimize and marginalize competition. With little oversight or compelling reason not to mount a challenge, well-financed and/or party-backed candidates throw up this obstacle as a matter of habit. They know that if a challenge is mounted their opponent must waste precious dollars and time defending themselves to the Board of Elections, and potentially in court; time and money better spent campaigning for office.
As is the case in the second council district, local party organizations often use this process to flex their political muscle, challenging candidates who oppose them. Six of the 11 candidates running for the open city council seat vacated by the term-limited Margarita Lopez are being challenged by the ironically-named Coalition for a District Alternative (CoDA), a political club that actively supports both Margarita Lopez and Lopez protĂ©gĂ© Rosie Mendez, who is running to be her successor.
If the Board of Elections confirms that the defendants’ signatures are not valid, for reasons as slight as the omission of a zip code or a forgotten date at the top of the sheet, the entire page of signatures is removed from the candidate’s count. (This is actually an improvement from the even more stringent requirements of the 1980s, which found signatures invalid if “street” or “avenue” were abbreviated.) If the final count falls below the minimum threshold, the candidate’s candidacy is over before it begins.
During the last municipal election, dozens of city council candidates were kicked off the ballot following petition challenges. Expect more of the same this year.
Doug Israel is the public policy director of Citizens Union Foundation, where Matthew Gertz is an intern.
The Campaign Tangle Series from 2001
â€˘ The Campaign Tangle Begins, by Bob Liff