09/23/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Signature Collectors

The current city elections have brought the usual tales of candidates who wanted to run for office, but were kept off the ballot by New York State's ballot access laws. As someone who once became fed up enough to run against my state legislator myself, I can tell you that those laws are designed to prevent elections, and make it exceedingly difficult to get on the ballot and speak your piece. The number of signatures required to get on the ballot for a primary against a major party opponent is large, and the time in which one is allowed to collect them is short, particularly for someone who has a job. Independent candidates, seeking to run in the general election when everyone shows up, require three times as many, collected in even less time. Minor party candidates, including Republicans in most of New York City, require fewer signatures, but must get the signatures of five percent of all party members in a district. I can tell you from experience that the election rolls include many former voters who have either died or moved, meaning one must in fact get the signatures of ten or 15 percent of those who are actually there, and it takes half an hour to get each signature. And then, after all that effort, candidates are routinely thrown off the ballot for formatting errors.

Yet some pretend that all the requirements designed to prevent contested elections are not unfair, because incumbents have to meet the same requirements. Or do they?

To get enough signatures to get on the ballot for an office such as City Council, the New York State Legislature, or member of Congress, one must have one of two things. Many volunteers experienced in collecting signatures (to avoid making the kind of formatting errors that get those signatures invalidated). Or money to hire paid professionals. As for the latter, while many average American citizens donate to candidates for President, few donate to those running for legislative offices. Organized special interests do donate to candidates for such offices, but only to incumbents. What about volunteers? Most people are very busy with jobs and other responsibilities, and are as unlikely to collect signatures for local candidates in their spare time as they are to donate money.

So how do the incumbents get their signatures collected? A recent article in the Daily News confirmed what I have long suspected.

"As first reported by Daily News columnist and blogger Liz Benjamin, three UJC officials have been doing campaign legwork for two Democrats - Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and City Councilman Alan Gerson - who have supplied their organization with millions in grants. And two of those UJC employees brought some of the paperwork into their office - a possible violation of campaign finance laws and IRS rules that strictly forbid political activity by tax-exempt charitable groups." This charity, like many others funded by the city and state, receives few individual donations, and relies on city and state grants for nearly all their funding, according to the Daily News. "The nursing director of UJC's home health program, Renee Abramowitz, testified that she found petitions for Gerson, Silver, William Thompson and other Democratic candidates sitting on her desk at work one morning and knew exactly what to do. 'I have done this many years,' Abramowitz said under oath. 'So I know when the sheet's on my desk, I just go out and I volunteer to do signatures.'"

Those working in "non-profit" organizations with no individual or foundation donors have every reason to "volunteer" to collect signatures for incumbents. Without the flow of money from those incumbents, their organizations might close, and they would have to find another job. The same may be said of the staff members of members of the City Council, the State Legislature, and Congress. Are they, wink wink, required to do a little after hours political work to keep their taxpayer-funded jobs as individuals? Even if not, they are certainly required to do so as a group, because without those signatures, their candidate would be off the ballot, and they, too, would have to get another job.

So incumbents have no problem with state requirements that prevent ordinary citizens from running against them, because they have special interest money for lawyers and "volunteers" to collect signatures, all funded by tax dollars extracted from ordinary citizens. And as long as taxpayers are in effect providing all the money and "volunteers" they need to get on the ballot, there is no incentive to make it easier for anyone else. I'd like to see the press look into the background of everyone who collected signatures for incumbent state legislators in 2008. I'll bet they would find a huge number of staff members and employees of organizations receiving member item grants. Employees of unions, whose members are required to contribute union dues as a condition of their government jobs, would probably show up as well.

If the ballot access rules were not so imposing to anyone who wasn't an incumbent, this wouldn't be a big deal. But since they are, I think it's fair to say it's practically illegal to try run against an incumbent. The likely punishment is making a big effort and losing one job (running for office is in effect giving notice after all) without even getting on the ballot and being able to speak one's peace, a fate I feared but avoided - but only with help.

Here in my section of Brooklyn, I'm getting a taste of the argument in favor of high-effort ballot access. With an open seat for City Council, I understand that no fewer than eight candidates have somehow fought their way through the obstacle course onto the ballot in my district. It is difficult to make the case that democracy would have been better served by having sixteen candidates rather than eight. Although I'm not a Democrat and thus not eligible to vote in the primary, I've been accosted by candidates while exiting mass and at the subway stop. One came to my house as I was about to take a shower - I hustled to the door in my bathrobe expecting a package delivery, and got a would-be City Council member with a signed copy of the his platitudes to throw on the pile with the other platitudes instead. My wife, the registered Democrat, has thus far been missed.

The many candidates running for election for this seat this year doesn't prove anything. An open seat will attract those seeking a political career, and ambitious careerists, or at least some of them, can get through the ballot access process, bad as it is. On the other hand running against an incumbent, as near impossible as it is to win, is something only someone with a statement to make would do. Ordinary citizens who aren't political types are defeated by excessive signature requirements and legal gamesmanship. What sort of person would be willing to ask people for money, trying to raise $tens of thousands, so they could hire an election lawyer?

If the members of the state legislature actually wanted to allow challengers, the law would require far fewer signatures if there was a sitting incumbent, and no more for an independent candidate than for a party candidate. That would make it easier for would-be citizen candidates to run, and would reduce the amount of tax dollars the incumbents would have to cut deals for to get on the ballot themselves. In the State Assembly, for example, for Sheldon Silver and any would-be opponent, for example 200 signatures rather than 500 should be enough. More time should be allowed to collect them too. And these should all be collected on devices such as those used by UPS drivers, with the voter registration rolls downloaded onto them, and records with the proper format, date and electronic copy of the signature automatically uploaded to the Board of Elections. These would be lent by the BOE, one to a candidate with a deposit, with the signatures preferably collected by the candidates themselves.

The number of signatures should be low enough that the incumbents and challengers should be able, themselves, to walk around evenings and weekends, talking to people, asking for support, and collecting them. Everything would be even.

But members of the state legislature do not want elections. That's why it is a law of their tribe that they leave in the middle of their term, so a replacement can selected in special election no one knows about, so there is never an open seat without a vested incumbent. Since we generally can't vote against them, all we can do is investigate them, and hope the legal process will remove some of them. Again, who collected the signatures of incumbent members of the state legislature in 2008? Why investigate just one? After all, every sellout of the state's future passes 212 to 0.

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