Election-Law Debacle Is a Two-Party Scandal

For those who appreciate the finer ironies of big-time politics, news that the state Democratic Party is offering to assist Republican insurgent John McCain in his quest for a place on the New York ballot surely must inspire a knowing smile, perhaps even a distinct guffaw. In coming to the rescue of the gallant Mr. McCain as he battles the forces of electoral darkness, the state Democrats are happy to have New Yorkers believe that they are interested only in furthering the cause of open and honest elections. The message is clear: Those nasty Republicans, led by no less a personage than the supposedly genial Governor himself, have turned parts of New York into what The New York Times called “democracy-free zones.”

The state Democrats, bless their democracy-loving souls, recently announced that they would offer whatever assistance and expertise they could to the McCain campaign as the Arizona Senator’s operatives struggle with the state’s insider-friendly election laws. Doesn’t that just warm your heart?

Of course, once all of this messy business goes away and the outraged editorialists move on, the very Democrats who are trying to nurture sweetness and democracy in New York will return to the business of making sure that their incumbents and nominees need never worry about a local McCain-like insurgency in their well-protected backyards. Yes, folks, those arcane laws that may yet keep Mr. McCain off the primary ballot in many parts of New York actually are used year in and year out by both parties. The result is that we have a state legislature whose members are more likely to pay for their own meals than face a genuine re-election campaign. (That is a way of saying that most members of the State Legislature are in no danger of fighting a real campaign.) And we have a City Council whose members are so entrenched, thanks in part to the election-law hurdles placed in front of would-be challengers, that it took a term-limit law to get them to contemplate life in the private sector. The City Council, of course, is overwhelmingly Democratic.

Yes, the Republicans certainly are making a mockery of the Presidential primary process by using the formidable resources of their party organization and the notoriously stringent requirements of the state’s election laws. But that should come as a surprise to nobody. After all, this sort of thing happens every four years, and it inspires the sort of follow-up action one associates with complaints about the weather.

At the risk of tipping off my superiors, I am obliged to report that every political commentator worthy of an open-ended expense account has, in some secret hiding spot of his or her computer, a template containing a full account of the state’s quadrennial embarrassment, filled with requisite phrases like “arcane ballot laws” and padded out with timeless quotes from outraged good-government types.

The narrative, you see, never changes. The ballot access stories we filed in 1996, 1992, 1988, etc., are just as fresh and relevant today as they were at the time. All that’s required is an update on the names of the new campaign’s candidates and the sides that various players have chosen. The plot line may not change, but the names often do. For example, in 1988 the Republicans tried to throw Bob Dole off the primary ballot because the state party supported George Bush. In 1996, the state party supported Mr. Dole, and tried to throw off his opponents, Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes. And this year, one of Mr. Bush’s supporters from 1988, Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari, is trying to stop Mr. Bush’s son from throwing off Mr. McCain. You follow this, don’t you?

All of this sure makes those dirty Republicans look bad, but that’s only because the dunderheads in charge of the state party don’t know a good thing when they see one. If they were as crafty as the state’s Democrats, they would understand that by throwing Presidential contenders off the primary ballot, they were letting the national press in on a terrible secret: that New York is among the nation’s most misgoverned states, at least on that not insignificant matter known as democratic rule. The re-election rate of our stewards in Albany is about 98 percent, from which we may gather either that the legislators are doing such a mighty job that we are content to let them eat on lobbyists’ tabs for the rest of their born days, or that the state’s political system is rigged against outsiders and challengers. Most rational people would select the latter choice.

The Democratic Party in New York is no more pure than the Republican Party on the telling issue of ballot access. The Democrats, however, are smart enough to constrain themselves when everybody is looking.