Come Primary Time, It’s Déjà Vu

Sometime next January, New York voters are likely to discover that the advent of a new millennium hasn’t changed much about the old way of doing politics here. Despite reforms signed into law earlier this year by Gov. George Pataki, the Empire State still has the most restrictive ballot access laws in the country. The state’s Republican bosses–and that ultimate boss, Mr. Pataki himself–continue to enjoy extraordinary influence over the March 7 primary ballot. Should they perceive a serious threat to their candidate, George W. Bush, they can still throw off a troublesome, poorly funded insurgent.

John McCain, that means you.

No matter how many admiring columns and editorials about the Arizona Senator appear in the national press between now and next March, he is in danger of being removed from the ballot in many districts by Mr. Pataki’s minions.

According to Guy Molinari, the Staten Island Borough President who chairs the McCain campaign in New York, his erstwhile friends in Albany are already planning to knock his man off. Mr. Molinari says he has seen a memorandum that went out to county leaders last September from the New York State Republican Committee, which outlined seven stages for the pre-primary Bush campaign.

The sixth step is to file Mr. Bush’s own petitions on Jan. 3, anticipating that their underfinanced and understaffed competitors won’t file until Jan. 6, the final deadline. That early filing by the Bush campaign will facilitate the seventh step ordered by the state committee memo–which is to comb their opponents’ filings in search of lethal errors.

“They’ve called on their people in the field to examine our petitions for possible challenge,” warned Mr. Molinari. “They’re probably going to try to challenge us. Ours is a people’s campaign, with a lot of people running for delegate for the first time who are green and inexperienced.” The Staten Island maverick says he will fight in court, but he is well aware that his novice campaign workers may make mistakes that can be exploited by Bush election lawyers.

For those who don’t recall how this game works, let’s review what happened back in 1996. The Governor and his alter ego, then-Senator Alfonse D’Amato, decided to award their friend Bob Dole all of New York’s Republican delegates, and they saw no reason to bother with a primary contest at all. So they dispatched election lawyers and campaign workers to examine the thousands of petition signatures filed by Steve Forbes and Pat Buchanan. Unsurprisingly, enough mistakes were found on those petitions to remove the two challengers from the ballot in many districts, at least according to the boss-controlled Board of Elections. The prospect of a single-candidate, Soviet-style primary was imminent.

At that point, Mr. Forbes went into Federal court, rightly claiming that his constitutional rights had been violated. He was lucky enough to appear before one of the nation’s best judges, Edward R. Korman, whose decision restored both him and Mr. Buchanan to the ballot.

At the behest of Republican leaders, including his friend Jack Kemp, Mr. Forbes wimped out in New York. He never mounted the television campaign he had once threatened against Mr. Dole. But the Forbes case exposed New York’s rigged election system so thoroughly that the state’s normally herdlike Republican legislators finally passed a reform bill. Candidates must still file a certain number of valid signatures, however, in every Congressional district. They can’t get on the ballot simply by paying a fee and signing a declaration of candidacy, as they do in almost every other state.

Tempting as it will be to remove Mr. McCain from the ballot in various districts, however, Mr. Bush and Mr. Pataki are likely to face a severe public relations quandary when that moment comes. If the Bush juggernaut is stalled by Mr. McCain in New Hampshire, where the Arizonan seems to be gaining support, then throwing Mr. McCain off the ballot in New York may serve as a firewall against his insurgency. But such a blatantly authoritarian maneuver could also backfire by making a martyr of the former prisoner of war.

As Mr. Molinari points out, his candidate is a hero to thousands of veterans in New York and millions around the country who would be outraged by any underhanded tactics against Mr. McCain. The abuse of electoral technicalities by a Bush-dominated Republican machine would simply highlight the Senator’s crusade for campaign finance reform, as well as the corporate elite’s attempt to impose Mr. Bush on the party by sheer force of money.

The Texas Governor will have to make that difficult decision by the middle of January–which could render him vulnerable to a popular backlash before the first vote is cast in New Hampshire. And the rumblings of discontent just might persist all the way until November.