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Ballot-Bumping in New York


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"In New York, politics is a blood sport."

This summer, Democratic City Councilmember Allan Jennings earned the distinction of being one of the few incumbent politicians in New York City ever to be kicked off the ballot by his own party.

The Queens Democratic Party, which has a history of conflict with the one-term council member and is supporting another candidate, challenged Jennings in court, claiming that the 3,300 signatures on his petitions were riddled with fake and fraudulent information.

Jennings acknowledged some minor mistakes, such as missing addresses or signatures from people who had recently moved, but denied any wrongdoing. In mid-August, State Supreme Court Justice Janice Taylor - who has received the backing of the Queens Democratic Party throughout her career - kicked Jennings off the ballot.

Jennings appealed and spent the next nine days in court. His campaign workers and volunteers were called on to testify about how, when and where they collected signatures. "All of my petition people were senior citizens and they don't remember things precisely," said Jennings.

A five-member panel of the Appellate Division eventually reversed the lower court ruling, citing "irregularities" in the petitions, but no fraud. The council member was put back on the ballot.

"I feel personally vindicated," he said later.

But Councilmember Jennings may not be the best standard-bearer for the principles of democracy. The council member himself sued all of his opponents in an effort to kick them off the ballot for the same kind of technicalities; he succeeded in narrowing the field of challengers from five to two.

"Using these type of shenanigans to deny the voters the right to choose is shameful," said Inderjit Singh, one of the two opponents who successfully defended their signatures.

In New York, which has some of the most complicated election laws in the nation, knocking your opponent off the ballot is a routine aspect of the political game. This year, dozens of candidates for City Council were eliminated on technicalities. And many more potential challengers did not even bother running, knowing that they would face huge legal bills and hours in court defending their right to run. (For a dozen council races worth watching this year, see Campaign 2003)

The process not only limits voters' choices, but it means the candidates spend more time in court than they do meeting the voters and hearing their concerns.

"In New York, politics is a blood sport," said election lawyer Henry Berger.

Gotham Gazette


Candidates have been knocked off the ballot for such infractions as writing the abbreviation "St." instead of "Street"


Battle To Get On

This summer, California has become the butt of political jokes with its recall election and a long list of candidates for governor including actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, activist Arianna Huffington, baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth, child actor Gary Coleman - and a porn star, a boxer, and a sumo wrestler.

But if the race were suddenly to be governed by the election laws and practices of New York, it would become absurd in exactly the opposite way -- none of the candidates would even make it to the ballot.

In California, one need only gather 65 signatures and pay $3,500 to get on the ballot for governor. In New York City, a candidate for the far more lowly post of City Council has just a few weeks in the summer to collect at least 900 signatures from voters in their district who are also registered in their political party. And the candidates have to make sure that the petitions, the pieces of paper where the signatures are collected, adhere to every little rule. No fourth-grade penmanship teacher was ever as strict.

Most experienced candidates, knowing that they will end up in court defending their petitions, collect 2,000 to 3,000 signatures.

For Republican or smaller party candidates trying to run in areas dominated by Democrats, it can be a daunting task. Sal Grupico, a Republican running in district 45 in Flatbush, Brooklyn, had trouble finding enough Republicans to sign his petitions. "I think most of them are gone and dead," he said.

The concept of gathering signatures on petitions dates back to the late 19th century. It was supposed to help eliminate the political parties' control of the ballot, according to Douglas Kellner, a commissioner at the Board of Elections. (See timeline of New York election law)

Before that, there were no printed ballots in New York. Voters simply went to the polls and wrote down the candidates of their choice. To instruct voters on who was running, political parties printed up a slate of candidates, which the voters could take with them to the polls.

This system had many problems, one of which was that political parties often printed counterfeit lists of candidates to deceive supporters of the opposition. "A counterfeit ticket would list a few of the party's prominent candidates - just enough to fool the unwary - with the rest of the names coming from a rival slate," said Kellner.

To clear up the process, the government began in 1880 to print a uniform ballot that would be presented to voters to fill out at the polls on Election Day. Political parties were allowed to nominate their candidates to be listed on the ballot. But in addition, candidates not selected by the party could get on the ballot anyway if they could submit enough signatures from voters.

To ensure that the signatures were valid, a series of rules were put in place - many of which are still used today.

Ironically, these rules set up over a century ago to assure a more open, honest and democratic process of elections have become just the opposite -- a powerful tool for political parties and incumbents to maintain their advantage. To these New York politicos, the best elections are those in which there is only one candidate left on the ballot for voters to choose.

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"It is not clear that any of these rules prevent fraud...It is incredibly trivial stuff that often trips up candidates."


Devil in the Details

Many incumbents, backed by their political party, have teams of lawyers who will go over a challenger's signatures, line by line, looking for minor mistakes like missing zip codes, misspellings, and voters who have signed petitions not knowing whether they live in the district or not.

In the past, candidates have been knocked off the ballot for such infractions as writing the abbreviation "St." instead of "Street" or forgetting to staple a cover sheet.

If the person gathering the signatures - called a petitioner - makes a mistake such as forgetting to write the borough on the bottom of the page, all of the signatures that he collected can be thrown out. If enough signatures are declared invalid, a candidate is eliminated.

This year, in the district 48 race in Coney Island and Gravesend Brooklyn one candidate was kicked off of the ballot because he petitioned under his common name Tony Eisenberg, rather than under his legal name Anatoly Eyzenberg. The Russian immigrant who has been in the United States for 23 years said that when he came to New York, he "Americanized" his name. "My wife, everyone calls me Tony - I forgot my name was Anatoly," he joked.

The argument for such complex and obscure rules is to protect against fraud and allow only serious candidates on the ballot.

Every so often, the press gleefully reports some obvious example of fraud; a court challenge to the petitions of Manhattan City Councilmember Alan Gerson revealed that they included the signature of a dead woman. Elsie Roloan, who died on June 22, nevertheless signed Gerson's petition four days later.

Gerson, who serves lower Manhattan's district 1, denied any wrongdoing and told the New York Post that it is nearly impossible for a candidate to know what is happening during the signature gathering. "I have no control or oversight over the petitions in question," Gerson said. "This suit is a total waste of the judiciary's time. It's frivolous."

Even those who believe that dead people should not be involved in the political process have to agree that such litigation, and the rules that encourage it, do not accomplish their supposed big-picture aim: Surely, nobody really doubts that an incumbent like Gerson is a serious candidate. Experts say that the rules, while useful as weapons by political opponents, in fact do little to protect voters.

"It is not clear that any of these rules prevent fraud," said Columbia Law Professor Richard Briffault. "It is incredibly trivial stuff that often trips up candidates."

The Board of Election officials and judges ruling on the cases often owe their seats to the same party organizations trying to get rid of all challengers, and so are slow to accept reforms.

In the case of Councilmember Allan Jennings, the judge who knocked him off the ballot, Justice Janice Taylor, was backed by the Queens Democratic Party, which a decade ago helped her reach the bench despite a rating of "not qualified" by the bar association, according to a recent article in the Daily News.

And even for candidates who admit the system is a mess, ballot challenges become a necessary part of the political process.

After being knocked off the ballot in 2001, Washington Heights council candidate Victor Bernace, a lawyer who usually defends cab drivers, learned the complexities of election law and this year challenged a less experienced candidate, Pedro Morillo. Bernace set up a headquarters at his kitchen table with five borrowed laptop computers and friends who worked round the clock to look for errors in his opponent's signatures.

"You get hit by the system, then you learn, then you do it to someone else," said Bernace. "It's really a silly game."

GG


"My wife, everyone calls me Tony," says Anatoly Eyzenberg, who was kicked off the ballot for using the name he has had since immigrating 23 years ago.


National Embarrassment

New York's Byzantine election laws received national attention in 2000, when Arizona Senator John McCain, who was running against George W. Bush in the Republican Presidential Primary, was knocked off of the ballot by his own party.

At the time, New York's election law required that a candidate collect thousands of signatures from each of the 31 congressional districts across the state, including areas of the city with few Republicans. Governor George Pataki, who supported Bush, used the laws to keep McCain out of the running.

McCain, who had already won the New Hampshire Primary, denounced the state's "Stalinist politics."

A federal judge eventually put McCain back on the ballot, but not before dozens of editorials across the country mocked New York's political process. That same year, Republican Steve Forbes spent $750,000 just to get on the primary ballot.

After the national embarrassment, state lawmakers instituted reforms. But local races are still decided as much in the courtroom as in the voting booth. The battles make for some very bizarre tales.

Bumped By The Dead

Even after James Davis was shot and killed in City Hall in July, lawyers for the slain council member continued their challenge of Davis's opponent Anthony Herbert in district 35 in central Brooklyn.

The Board of Elections removed Herbert because dozens of the petition sheets failed to include the city and county of the person collecting the signatures. To avoid such problems, many candidates have the name of the city and county pre-printed on the petition sheet, but Herbert, who was running for the first time, overlooked the detail. Even though Herbert collected more than 2,000 signatures, he found himself with half the amount needed after the challenge.

"Anthony Herbert may go down in history as just another exhibit showing that you don't challenge insiders," said Herbert's lawyer Victor Bernace. "Even a dead man can kick you off the ballot in New York."

Herbert, reportedly enraged at being unjustly maneuvered off the ballot by his party, has announced that he will run for the seat in the general election on the Republican line.

Fighting the Family

Bronx Candidate Luana Rodriguez found herself fighting the most powerful political family in the Bronx when she tried to challenge 24-year-old Councilmember Joel Rivera in district 15.

Councilmember Rivera's father is Jose Rivera, State Assemblyman and chair of the Bronx Democratic Party. Joel's mother is the district manager of community board 6 and her son's former campaign manager. Joel's sister is the deputy chief at the Bronx Board of Elections.

The Rivera's used all their forces to work to knock her off the ballot, Rodriguez said. She was disqualified when two of her witnesses, those who collected and verified the petitions, were found to not be registered Democrats living in the district.

Rodriguez said she never stood a chance in challenging the ruling. "I counted 10 lawyers for the other side," she said.

gg


"I counted 10 lawyers for the other side," said Luana Rodriguez, who was kicked off the ballot by the Rivera clan of the Bronx.


Borough Park Brawl

In Borough Park, Brooklyn a former council member, Noach Dear, who was barred from running this year by the term-limits law, tried to sue his way onto the ballot. He even circulated petitions, gathering signatures from voters who had no idea that he cannot legally run again until 2005.

Incumbent Councilmember Simcha Felder filed a counter lawsuit to block Dear from appearing on the ballot and threatened to garnish his salary if elected. "If he's circulating petitions, he's deceiving voters," said Felder.

After months of legal wrangling, Dear was barred from running. Those who see this as a triumph for democracy, or at least for the rule of law, may find it bracing to learn that, this fall, Councilmember Felder is running unopposed on the Democratic, Republican, and Conservative party lines.

Worse Than The Worst Country Club

Even Republicans, who have a slim chance of winning in a Democratic district, wage fierce battles with each other before primary day.

In district 32 Republican Richard Iritano said he was locked out of the process when the party refused to even talk to him. Iritano was then knocked off of the ballot after the Board of Elections ruled that 521 of his petition signatures were altered. Iritano said that the claim was "complete nonsense because all of the petitions were collected by myself and my mother."

Republican Michael Mossa challenged Iritano's petitions, and when Iritano tried to defend his case in court, he said that the judge reprimanded him for wasting the court's time. "The whole campaign was an exercise in futility," said Iritano. "I haven't seen this kind of exclusionary behavior even in the worst country clubs."

Chances for Reform?

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Reforming New York's laws is a nearly impossible undertaking given that political parties and incumbents in power see the system as working just fine. And most election-reform groups in the state work on other issues like same-day registration and poll worker training, not trying to rewrite election procedures that have been in operation since 1880.

There have been some minor changes in recent years, trying to cut down on some of the obscure regulations. A series of federal lawsuits have overturned some state rulings and some judges have been shamed into being more lenient.

Experts concede that these have not been enough. "There is a sense across the country that New York has the worst laws in the country," said Briffault.

These laws are not just bad for candidates, but for voters.

"Often it appears that candidates spend more time in court trying to knock each other from the ballot than they do explaining themselves to potential voters," Governor Mario Cuomo wrote in the New York Law Journal. "The State has no interest in denying qualified candidates an ability to be on the ballot and to be judged on their own merit. Unfortunately, New York's ballot access law does just that."

*******

Campaign 2003 -- Election Coverage:
• A Dozen Council Races to Watch
• A Brief History of Election Law in New York
• Gotham Gazette Looks at City Council Campaign 2003

*******

Series of Campaign Tangle articles from 2001:
• Campaign Tangle Begins
• A City of Challenges
• The Rejected Candidates
• Chaos and Confusion
• The Battle for District Attorney
• Disillusioned Candidates

Test Your NYC Knowledge


 

 

This is a quiz especially for Gotham Gazette readers who want to challenge their own New York savvy. They are not the exact same questions as those offered in the professional licensing examination for tour guides, but they tap into the same vast treasure trove of New York City legends and lore. (For more about the actual test for tour guides, read Testing the Tour Guides)

Simply click on the circle next to the answer you think is correct, and an answer will appear in the box below. Keep trying until you get the correct answer.

 




Three articles in this series:
Testing The Tour Guides
The Tour Guides Complain
Test Your NYC Knowledge

Breaking Down the Budget Game


In the end, the zoo animals were spared.

After months of dire predictions, including threats to bears and chimpanzees, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Gifford Miller reached an agreement on the city's $43.7 billion budget and closed the largest deficit since the 1970's. The zoos in Queens and Brooklyn that the mayor had threatened to close down were saved; so too were trash pickups, child health clinics, libraries, scholarships to city universities, and weekend meals for elderly. Even recycling is making a comeback - plastic pickups will resume on July 1 and glass collections are scheduled for spring of 2004.

"The people of New York City have stood up and taken care of themselves," said Mayor Bloomberg. Still the budget, which goes into effect on July 1, includes some deep cuts, such as:

  • Laying off 4,000 city workers, mostly in the Department of Education
  • Cutting half of a $200 stipend for teachers to buy classroom supplies
  • Reducing funding for new school construction and renovation
  • Closing six firehouses

And there are the tax increases. In the last eight months, the mayor and the council raised property taxes, sales tax, income taxes on the wealthiest residents, and placed a surcharge on absentee landlords.

Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani once referred to the city's budget process as a "game" with the mayor calling for cuts and the City Council restoring most of them to the relief of the public.

This year, the usual budget rules changed: the mayor announced $90 million in restorations before the council could take credit for them and the State Legislature overrode Governor George Pataki's veto in order to help the city.

But it remained a game - one that many New Yorkers believe they could have done a better job of playing.

"I balanced the budget in five minutes, without cutting one fire station," said Joe Nardiello, one of over 5,400 New Yorkers who balanced the city's budget on their own by playing an interactive budget game on GothamGazette.com.

Most who played Gotham Gazette's budget game chose the commuter tax as their primary way of balancing the budget. Raising property taxes, sales tax, and income taxes were among the least desirable options. (See sidebar for game results.)

Mayor Bloomberg, who has the lowest approval ratings of any mayor in the last 25 years, hopes the worst is over.

"I think certainly barring some totally unforeseen thing, that tax increases are clearly behind us," the mayor said.

THE BUDGET TRAIL

In April, Mayor Michael Bloomberg presented his plan to close a $3.8 billion budget deficit and called for $600 million in cuts to services.

If the state legislature did not provide $2 billion in aid and pass a commuter tax, the mayor said he would have to resort to a second scenario - a so called "doomsday budget" - and lay off 10,000 additional city workers.

Many in the city immediately dismissed the commuter tax as a fantasy. Even proponents questioned the mayor's tactics since his commuter tax was three times larger than the one the city had had for 30 years. Bloomberg also said he would use part of the revenue to give city residents a tax break.

Results from Gotham
Gazette's Budget Game

In the last month, 5,412 people played the interactive budget game. Some game players saw the game as a serious exercise, reflecting their own experiences in the city. "Working for the Department of Education and seeing the entire clerical staff laid off last week gave me a better sense of our crisis," said Pedro Cubero, one game player. "It's not easy to balance the budget, but everyone knows Bloomberg will be a one term mayor because of [it]."

Some offered suggestions that the mayor and the game did not consider. "With a full restoration of the stock transfer tax, we could wipe out the deficit in the City's budget and begin to address the state's budgetary problems as well," said Timothy Logan, another player.

Still others took a more whimsical approach to the city's fiscal crisis. "I played the game and ended up with a $ 58 billion surplus," said Jeremy. "Sure, I boosted all the taxes and reduced all expenditures to zero, but come on, ‘ca-ching!' I'd be rich."

The overall results from the game seemed to reflect New Yorker's concerns and some of the most common stories in the news. Players refused to cut spending to the fire department and transportation and increased funding most often for trash collection and housing.

New Yorkers also raised taxes as well. The two most popular choices were the cigarette tax (which the mayor did raise) and the commuter tax (which he failed to get from Albany).

Cuts

New Yorkers cut spending most often in (in descending order) social services, government administration, debt service, education, courts and corrections. The fire department and transportation were the least cut categories in the game.

Spending

New Yorkers increased city spending most often for fire department, sanitation, environment, housing, parks, children and transportation.

Taxes

The most popular revenue generating measures were selling taxi medallions, making a deal with the port authority for airports, increasing cigarette taxes, and instituting a commuter tax.

The least popular revenue options were raising property taxes, instituting tolls on the East River Bridges, and raising sales taxes.

But throughout the budget process, Mayor Bloomberg remained optimistic that lawmakers in Albany would come to the city's rescue.

"My prayers, my hopes and my expectations are that Governor Pataki, Majority Leader Bruno and Assembly Speaker Silver will come together and help this city when it needs it," the mayor said in April.

However, Governor George Pataki rejected nearly every budget request from Mayor Bloomberg. Pataki said "no" to the commuter tax, produced a plan to restructure the state's Medicaid funding formula so that the city would have to pay more and even tried to grab a larger share of the city's homeland security funding from the federal government.

So Mayor Bloomberg took his case to the State Assembly and Senate, which few considered a hopeful prospect since the legislature had not passed a budget against the governor's wishes in more than two decades.

Faced with complaints from constituents about cuts to education and health care programs, Democratic Assembly Speaker Silver and Republican State Senate Leader Bruno joined forces.

The legislature restored much of the governor's cuts to school aid, Medicaid and public health and gave the city permission to raise three taxes. The state also assumed about $500 million in city debt.

Governor Pataki called the plan a "multimillion-dollar tax grab" and complained that his grandchildren would still be paying off the city's 1970's debt in the year 2034. The governor vetoed the budget, but the State Assembly and Senate overrode his veto the next day.

At the end of the budget process, Albany did come through for New York City, but not in the way the mayor predicted.

The city will actually receive more than the $2.7 billion from the State Legislature than it was seeking. This additional revenue, Mayor Bloomberg said, allowed the city to avoid $215 million in service cuts.

NEW TAXES

The budget plan negotiated by Mayor Bloomberg and the State Assembly and Senate does not include a commuter tax and instead raises revenues from three smaller taxes. While they will provide much-needed revenue for the city, each also creates its own pain for residents.

Sales Tax

This summer, everything in the city costs more.

The city increased its sales tax by .125 percent. Combined with a state increase of .25 percent, New Yorkers will now pay a total 8.625 percent sales tax. The increase is expected to generate $115 million for the city and is scheduled to be phased out in two years. The state also reinstated taxes on clothing and shoes that cost less than $110; those items have been tax-free.

Both Republican and Democratic City Council members were angered by the sales tax, arguing that it would encourage people to shop outside of the city and hurt low-income residents the most. "This is Mike's tax, not ours," said Brooklyn Councilmember Charles Barron when the council passed the sales tax increase.

The sales tax was supposed to begin June 1, but the mayor and the City Council made a costly oversight that delayed it for a few days. The council passed the bill on May 28, but city law requires a bill to "age" for five days before it can be signed by the mayor. The mistake cost the city more than $1 million in lost revenue and angered merchants who had to reset their cash registers twice - once for the state sales tax increase and once for the city increase.

Income Tax

While the sales tax affects all New Yorkers, the city also singles out wealthy residents to help balance the budget.

The city raised the personal income tax increase for individuals earning more than $100,000 a year and couples making more than $150,000 a year. This tax hike will produce an additional $600 million for the city and is scheduled to be phased out in three years.

While many Democrats were pleased with the increase in the personal income tax on the wealthy, calling it the most "progressive tax in recent history," business leaders and some budget watchdogs warned that the higher tax makes the city less competitive.

Landlord Tax

Landlords who own one-, two- or three-family houses and use them for income will see a steep increase in their property tax. This year, owners will pay a 25 percent surcharge on the assessed value of their house. In subsequent years, the surcharge will rise to 50 percent of the assessed value.

Some have argued that the tax on such properties has been too low for too long and an increase was overdue. Lawmakers even tried to make the property tax surcharge seem more acceptable by dubbing it an "absentee landlord tax," playing on New Yorkers' general distrust of property owners.

But others say that landlords will likely pass the increase on to their tenants by imposing higher rents.

CITY COUNCIL EFFORTS

Without the power to raise most taxes by itself, the New York City Council has been relegated to the role of protestor, fighting to keep budget cuts to a minimum.

Brooklyn Councilmember Bill DeBlasio was arrested at a protest to stop the closure of fire company 204. Astoria Councilmember Peter Vallone, Jr. held a hearing on making New York City the 51st state. And Washington Heights Councilmember Robert Jackson walked 150 miles from New York City to Albany to protest education funding.

In the end, the council got most of what it was asking for with two notable exceptions: 3,500 education workers were laid off and six firehouses remained closed.

"Can we honestly say that the restoration package…reflects the priorities of the citizens of this city?" asked Brooklyn Councilmember Yvette Clarke in the council chambers the day after the handshake agreement. "No. It doesn't."

Still Clarke and the other member of the City Council voted to approve the budget. Only the three Republican members - James Oddo, Andrew Lanza, and Dennis Gallagher - voted against the tax increases.

As part of their agreement with the mayor, the council also passed a law to limit the city's liability in slip and fall accidents, shifting the responsibility to property owners.

Council members vowed to keep fighting for teachers' aides, firehouses, and said they want to amend the tort reform bill, worrying that it places too much of the burden on New Yorkers.

"Not every step taken in this process was a victory," said Councilmember David Weprin, the chair of the finance committee. "There still remain issues that we will visit again in the future."

LOOKING AHEAD

While the mayor and the City Council emphasized what they had put back into the budget, lobbyists pored over the details.

"There is over $400 million in cuts in this budget that no one is talking about," said Bonnie Brower of the watchdog group City Project.

Education advocates lamented that the mayor was spending more to renovate one courthouse than on all school construction in next year. The amount of money to build new housing continues to shrink. And services like mental health care, foster care, and youth programs still face cuts.

And for all of the politics and the pain of this year's budget, passed just in time for its commencement on July 1st, lawmakers have more challenges ahead.

Two of the largest parts of the city budget - debt service and Medicaid payments - will continue to increase. There are no wage increases for city workers in this year's budget. And some city watchdogs also predict that New York City's economy will not recover as quickly as some hope.

Next year, the mayor and the City Council face another budget deficit of $2 billion.

 


 

RELATED ARTICLES
• Dedicated Taxes (June 2003)
• Interactive Budget Game (June 2003)
• Mayor Avoids a Fiscal Meltdown (June 2003)(This essay was quoted in the lead front page article of the NY Times on the budget agreement, Thursday, June 26)
• New Way of Doing Business In Albany? (May 2003)
• Bloomberg's UnBearable Budget (April 2003)
• State Budget and NYC (April 03)

 


 



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