Document:Ballot Access in New York

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by William Kone

To say that New York's Ballot Access laws are archaic is an understatement. Ballot Access is an often overlooked aspect of campaign reform. What does it matter where or from whom the money came from, if the person is not on the ballot? Take Steve Forbes' recent experience; he spent approximately $500,000 on collecting petition signatures and another $1 million fighting in court to stay on the ballot.

Ballot Access Laws are written by incumbents of the two major parties to prevent competition between candidates, especially from third parties. The laws also benefit incumbents by their highly technical signature validation requirements.

The evidence is staggering. In 1994, New York State averaged 1.6 different names per seat up for election. Out of 211 state office seats, 42 went unopposed, and only 28 third party candidates competed in the rest. (Ithaca had a banner year in 1995, out of 6 seats up for election, 3 were contested. In 1993 only 4 out of 10 were.) For a Nationally organized party like the Greens or Libertarians, to put candidates on the ballot for every state level seat,-- Congress, Assembly, State Senate, Governor-- they would have to collect a minimum 580,000 petition signatures. Compare that to the Democrats/Republicans minimum of 187,000. Keep in mind, the hyper technical ballot rules force candidates to collect 2 to 3 times the required number of petition signatures. In other words, third parties need 1 out of every 9 registered voters to sign their petitions.

Lets look at some of the more glaring inequities in access laws. For a Democrat or Republican to run for State Assembly, the minimum number of signatures is 500. But for an Independent, the minimum is 1,500. For State Senator, the big two have to collect 1,000 signatures, versus the Independent's minimum of 3,000. Which would have an easer time getting on the ballot for Congress, the Republican or Democrat with a minimum of 1,250, or the Independent with the minimum of 3,500?

Not all of New York's Ballot laws are unfair. The rule for any State wide office, such as President, U.S. Senate or Governor is fair. Everyone, regardless of being a Republican, Democrat or Independent, must collect 15,000 petition signatures. Is it any wonder that it is here we see the widest choice of candidates? In 1994 we had 6 different names to choose from for Governor. This shows that a fair rule lets citizens have the best say in government.

It was easer in 1994 for the Libertarians to run 5 people for state office, than to run 2 congressional candidates. Very few third parties, like the U.S.Taxpayer or Libertarians, have the funds to fight for lines on the Ballot in each congressional district.

The hyper picky ballot rules also keep off candidates who collect the required number of petitions. This is done by "challenging" the petition signatures, the address of the signer, their Ward, Election district, Assembly district, and Congressional district. (Do you know your Ward/Election district?) Or, by challenging the witness of the petition on the same grounds.

Don't think that this does not happen. In 1994, the 125th Assembly seat challenger's petition was attacked on the grounds that one of the witness's address on the petition did not match the Cortland county's new 911 system address. Some of Forbes' petitions were challenged on the grounds the paper was too short, was signed in the wrong color ink, and transposed wards/assembly districts. In short everything to keep opponents off the ballot. After all, it is much easer to run unopposed than to face a challenger.

What changes should be made? Most importantly would be the equalization of the petition requirements, along the lines of the state wide office requirements. That works fine now, so lets apply it at all levels.

Second, change the party qualifying rule from the current 50,000 votes for Governor (once every 4 years) to 50,000 votes for ANY state wide office (every 2 years). Third, ease the petition validation rules, which would lower the number of extra petition signatures actually needed beyond the minimum.

Some other ideas can be taken from other states with good ballot access laws. Such as expanding the Petition collection time from 6 weeks to 12 weeks. Or passing a 51% rule, such as in Georgia, requiring a majority of the vote to take office. If no candidate receives 51%, the top two have a run off three weeks later.

In the end, allowing more people to directly participate in elections would defuse the power of money. Reforming the system allows people to concentrate their limited resources on spreading their message, not spending it in court.