By Bob Liff
candidates prepare to fan out across the city to gather
signatures on nominating petitions, an old political aphorism
is about to come back into play: It's good to know the
law, but it's better to know the judge.
New York's cumbersome election laws are notorious around
the country, producing more court challenges than all
other states combined.
The best known recent cases involve Republican presidential
shenanigans, including a federal lawsuit last year that
forced state GOP leaders to add Arizona Senator John McCain's
name to the primary ballot statewide. Four years earlier,
it took Steve Forbes' deep pockets and teams of lawyers
to force his way onto a ballot where state GOP leaders
wanted to grease the skids for Kansas Senator Bob Dole's
But it is in the local, less noticed races - for city
council, district leader, the state legislature - where
the power of county party organizations come into play.
These are cases in which party-paid lawyers ask judges
who owe their seats to the same party organizations to
rule on challenges to the nominating petitions filed by
challengers unblessed by the party leaders.
It is a system in which petty technicalities become the
fodder for a series of summertime lawsuits that keep a
small group of lawyers gainfully employed. Mistakes in
filling out petitions become labeled fraud. Judges order
candidates to send troops of loyalists to nearby borough
offices of the Board of Elections to go line-by-line over
thousands of signatures on the petitions in search of
those that can be kicked out. With enough signatures declared
invalid, the candidates are then denied a place on the
The system has been made a tad more democratic in recent
decades through a series of federal lawsuits that overturned
state rulings that had favored the machine. But machinations
still allow many elections to be decided in courtrooms
long before voters get to go to the polling place.
The party organizations themselves go to incredible lengths
to make sure their own petitions are valid, and filed
on time. A favorite war story involves Harold Fisher,
the late Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman
who was the chief lawyer and chief judge-picker for the
Brooklyn Democratic organization when it was headed by
the legendary boss Meade Esposito.
Fisher was in a car accident late one night in the 1960s
as he drove the organization's petitions to the Board
of Elections offices, then on Varick St. in Lower Manhattan.
No one was injured in the accident, but it left the rear
end of Fisher's car bashed in.
The petitions, of course, were in the trunk. As the midnight
deadline neared, Fisher drove the car onto the freight
elevator at the board headquarters, and drove it off onto
the board's floor. There technicians logged in the car
and slapped a seal on the trunk, which was opened with
a crowbar the next day to free the petitions for more
By far, most candidates lose their place on the ballot
for failing to collect enough valid signatures. For a
citywide race such as mayor or public advocate, 7,500
such signatures are required. There are 4,000 needed to
appear as a candidate for borough president. Candidates
for City Council must get signatures from 900 registered
voters who live in the district in which they are running.
The signatures this year must be collected between June
5 and July 12.
In some of this year's City Council races, which thanks
to term limits and the public financing of campaigns have
attracted as many as a dozen candidates in a single district,
there simply do not exist enough registered voters in
some districts to put every would-be candidate on the
ballot. So, some candidates will not even get past the
initial screening of the signatures by the Board of Elections.
But a goodly number of those who do could find themselves
forced to defend the validity of the collected signatures
It used to be worse. In the 1980s, petitions were declared
invalid for such mind-numbing technicalities as addresses
in which "street" or "avenue" were not spelled out, but
written as "st." or "ave."
Then there were the truly arcane requirements for the
cover sheets, those pages placed on top of the petitions
that are supposed to list the numbers of signatures contained
The requirements tripped up at least two incumbent legislators,
Bedford-Stuyvesant's Al Vann and Roger Green, who wound
up kicked off the Democratic primary ballot. But both
won re-election anyway, by getting on the ballot of other
political parties, either on the Liberal Party line, or
in Green's case, a newly-created party called the Children
There was even one case in which Democratic powers kicked
into high gear and used challenges to knock every other
candidate of every other party off the ballot on some
technicality or another in order to help the veteran lawmakers
Legislators eventually were shamed into easing many of
the requirements. No longer do candidates have to pore
through voter lists to add the precise number of the election
district or the assembly district in which each voter
The most recent line of attack for party leaders has
been to challenge the validity of the so-called subscribing
witnesses, the people who sign a petition's cover sheet
attesting that they collected or witnessed the collecting
of the signatures. In a recent lawsuit, involving the
tiny Independence Party and a special city council election
in Staten Island, a judge threw out a requirement that
the subscribing witness had to live within the district
where he was collecting the signatures for the petition.
That was a requirement that clearly benefited party organizations
who have built up cadres of supporters throughout the
city. But the party machinery could get around their own
residential requirement, because many machine loyalists
are also registered as commissioners of deeds, an obscure
title granted by the City Council which authorizes people
to attest to the validity of signatures anywhere in the
But individual challengers and the smaller parties (Independence,
Liberal, Conservative, Right to Life and Working Families)
did not have the clout to get their loyalists registered
as commissioners of deeds, and they often found it an
insurmountable obstacle to get the right party members
to the right district within the right time. Hence the
The Democrats decided not to take this last federal ruling
lying down. While the federal decision was based on a
series of cases expanding opportunities within party primaries,
another line of cases upheld the parties' status as private
organizations with rights to control their own destinie.
So party leaders tried to circumvent the federal court
ruling by passing a party rule reinstating the old subscribing
witness rule, meaning a person would have had to live
in the district where they were collecting signatures.
At the same time, the Assembly elections committee began
drafting state legislation to do the same thing. Neither
effort, however, bore fruit and the court ruling stands.
The rule this year, therefore, is that any city voter
can collect petition signatures anywhere in the city,
provided that voter is registered in the party the candidates
are running in. The ruling was intended as a means to
help minor parties and challengers. But party leaders,
and union leaders with large cadres of mobile loyalists,
could likely turn it to their own advantage by dispatching
troops throughout the city to collect signatures without
having to worry about where the petition gatherer lives.
After the whole process is over, the survivors are rewarded
by getting to face the voters.
Oh yeah, the voters. Remember them?