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Opening the GOP Primary

by Andrea Senteno, Nov 28, 2007
 

With presidential primary season set to begin in about six weeks, candidates are busy securing their place on primary ballots across the country. In New York, getting on the ballot in primary elections or as a so-called minor party candidate in general elections has long been notoriously difficult.

The rules were particularly daunting for prospective candidates in the Republican presidential primary. But following an uproar in 2000, things seem to have changed. With new requirements designed to make getting on the Republican ballot in New York easier, one wonders whether Stephen Colbert could have made it onto the ballot if he had chosen to run in New York rather than South Carolina.

State political parties set the rules for how a candidate can get his or her name on the primary election ballot, meaning candidates must be sure to fulfill the ballot requirements of each state. In one state a candidate may only have to garner national media attention to be listed on the ballot, while others may require candidates to collect signatures of voters from their party. This means a candidate may be on the ballot in California but missing from it in New York. Not only does access to the ballot vary across the country, but it also differs between the different political parties within any given state.

The Democratic and Republican parties in New York set the requirements for presidential candidates and party delegates. Democratic candidates have to collect 5,000 signatures statewide to secure a place on the New York Democratic ballot. That requirement has changed little over the years. However, the Republican Party instituted some dramatic changes to its rules resulting in what some advocates hope will be a more open ballot in the future.

The GOP Labyrinth

During the last Republican primary in New York, in 2000 (President George W. Bush did not face a primary challenge in 2004), presidential candidates technically did not appear on the ballot themselves. Republicans voted for three delegates and alternates in each of the 31 congressional districts. Each delegate’s name on the ballot was placed next to the name of the presidential candidate to whom they were committed. The meant candidates seeking the Republican nomination in New York had to ensure that at least one of the party delegates on the primary ballot in each district in the state was committed to his campaign. In order to get a delegate on the ballot, each “delegate-candidate” had to collect the signatures of either 1,000 Republicans or 0.5 percent of registered Republicans in that district, whichever was less. The candidate also was required to collect 5,000 Republican signatures statewide.

New York drew national attention when in 2000 it appeared that presidential candidate John McCain might not get on the Republican ballot. A campaigner for McCain mistakenly wrote the wrong house numbers for the addresses of two signers. Because of the mistake, their signatures were deemed invalid and McCain fell one signature short of the required minimum to remain on the ballot. Eventually a judge ordered that McCain delegates appear on the ballot. But, since voters chose delegates, not their preferred presidential candidate, Bush was able to capitalize on having prominent Republicans as his delegates and won handily.

Coordinating a campaign centered on securing ballot space for delegates in each district rather than the individual candidate statewide can be daunting for challengers without the resources the party can provide to its selected candidate. In districts with a small number of Republican voters, it can be nearly impossible to obtain the necessary number of signatures because the rules prohibit people from signing more than one petition.

Opening the Ballot

After the 2000 elections, New York Republicans changed the ballot access laws to make the process more open. Today, Republican presidential candidates have three different ways to obtain a place on the ballot for the February 5 primary. They can appear on the ballot if they qualify to receive public matching campaign funds, collect 5,000 signatures statewide or if the State Board of Elections Commissioners determines that they are a nationally recognized candidate in the media. In addition, on primary day, Republicans will vote for the presidential candidate himself, not the delegates they represent.

Advocates of more open ballots hope that relieving candidates of the burden of securing delegates space on the ballot, along with providing three different avenues to get on the ballot, will provide more choices for voters on primary day. “States often use high petition signature and filing fee requirements to limit ballot access and thus constrain the choices of voters. Signature and fee requirements for all candidates must be reasonable to ensure that voters have a real choice and are not simply rubber stamping the picks of party leaders,” said Chris Dreibelbis, communication director of The Reform Institute, a public policy group that evaluates state ballot access laws. “The post-2000 changes instituted by the New York Republican Party are a marked improvement from the previous highly restrictive rules.”

The Reform Institute gave New York an “F” rating in 2004 for the state’s ballot access requirements and is set to release an updated evaluation of all 50 states’ ballot access laws by the end of the year

However, candidates are not ensured a smooth ride. Easier ballot access also aims at cutting down on cases where small margins of invalid signatures decide the fate of a candidate. Despite this, candidates will probably mount challenges in an effort to force some opponents off the ballot. As election lawyers from all sides review petition signatures with a fine-tooth comb in attempts to purge invalid signatures, minor challenges are likely. Procedural changes may reduce the number of needless challenges, but in the race for the presidency no rock goes unturned.

The results of the changes in the Republican primary rules will be more apparent after county hearings on ballot challenges are held in December. So far, though, it appears that New York Republicans are looking at the most democratic procedure to select a presidential candidate in decades.

Does this mean any Tom, Dick and Harry can get on the ballot? No. Would Colbert have made it on the ballot? Who knows?  

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