By the People? Not in New York

Prepare to be embarrassed again, New Yorkers: The eyes of the nation will soon be upon you, and as happens every four years, they will widen with shock and horror as the state’s oligarchs turn a Presidential primary into a Soviet-style “free” election.

The phrase “ballot access” no doubt dulls the imagination of everybody except those sturdy civic-minded types who delight in examining the placement of semicolons in the city’s now-annual charter revisions. With good reason. After all, while the prospect of running a Presidential primary campaign in New York inspires terror in even the most seasoned political operative, the professional explaining class lacks the touch of Alfred Hitchcock necessary to turn the act of petition-gathering into a visit to the Bates Motel.

And so, in the gray netherworld of Albany, lawmakers see no reason to change a status quo that has helped make New York among the worst-governed states on matters electoral. Editorial writers and good-government groups may make a lot of noise, but they have only the power to shame. And the shameless have all the armor they need to protect themselves from the slings and arrows of outrageous outrage.

As the various Presidential contenders finished the arduous process of petition-gathering on Jan. 6, there was the customary spate of stories about those bedraggled candidates-that is, those who are running against the choices of the state party establishments-who very likely will not appear on the ballot, or who will appear on ballots in some parts of the state but not in others. The New York primary on March 7 is not one statewide election, but, in fact, 31 local elections-one in each of the state’s ever-dwindling number of congressional districts. Without the kind of manpower that the established party organizations can summon, even Presidential candidates find themselves struggling to get the required number of signatures in each district’s ballot, plus the extra thousands necessary to withstand the party establishment’s inevitable legal assault. The arduous process of challenging the validity of petition signatures in court is part of ritual that makes New York Presidential primaries so much fun.

Indeed, there is in New York a subspecies of lawyer that seems to exist only on islands east of the Hudson River-the election-law lawyer. As with any species, individual members vary in temperament and personality, but they share certain qualities, among them an ability to spot an uncrossed T at a thousand paces and a tendency to move from mate to mate with the coming of each election cycle. The election-law lawyer who falls in love with an outsider, waxing furious on the subject of accessible ballots, will soon be in a warm embrace with various all-powerful oligarchs who consider the ballot to be private property.

As of this writing, it seems that Senator John McCain of Arizona, by all rights the only credible challenger to nominee-presumptive George W. Bush on the Republican side, will qualify in only about half the state’s congressional districts. The state Republican machine supports Mr. Bush and will continue to use New York’s insider-friendly election law to further suppress Mr. McCain.

Meanwhile, in one of those only-in-New York moments, former Senator Bill Bradley’s New York supporters held a news conference at City Hall on Jan. 6 to announce with great glee that they had collected enough signatures to qualify in each of the state’s congressional districts. The very fact that this is considered an accomplishment, and indeed one to be announced to the press with great fanfare, speaks to the state of democracy in the state of New York. A co-chair of the Bradley campaign in New York, Michael DelGiudice, rightly congratulated his workers for collecting 45,000 signatures without the support of the pro-Al Gore state party hierarchy, but he was careful to avoid pointing out that in other states, 5,000 signatures or the simple payment of a small fee would have achieved the same result.

Fair play to the Democrats-they generally don’t emulate the state’s Republicans in their enthusiasm for denying ballot space to insurgent Presidential candidates. But once the national press disappears and the Presidential campaign is over, Democrats and Republicans alike put the state’s election laws to work in denying ballot access to insurgents for all manner of state, municipal and other local offices. If Mr. McCain had a hard time with New York’s election laws, imagine the challenge facing an earnest community organizer or save-the-world ideologue or a profits-first libertarian seeking to run against the party-supported time servers who help write the laws.

Hard to believe, but there was a time back in the last century when New York was considered a trailblazer in political reform. Those days, like the state’s claims to national leadership, are over.