By Gary Tilzer
The Real Campaign is to Suppress Challengers
Using the Courts and the CFB Rules to Win Elections
Every year in an annual ritual, scores of candidates, many running for the first time are denied a chance to compete in the electoral process or have their campaign efforts severely harmed by the obstacles of ballot access. New York’s election law is among the most stringent in the nation. It poisons the democratic process and is kept in place by incumbents and a political machine which gain advantage by those that it harms. Sometimes more than half of a challenger’s time and resources (for those that make it through the petitioning process), are used up to get through the obstacles put in place to deny them ballot access. Many races are decided in the courts or by Campaign Finance Board (CFB) rules, not the ballot box. It not just the petitions system that machine-backed candidates use to block ballot access, the CFB rule which allows a candidate who challenges his opponent(s) petitions to receive matching funds, but not the candidate(s) he is challenging, has become a weapon to gravely weaken ones challenge(s).
A great example how the insiders used the CFB rules to their advantage is the special election to fill the council seat of Congressman McMann. Kenneth Mitchell a machine backed candidate in this month's special election to fill a Staten Island council seat challenged almost all of the other candidates in the race. As of Tuesday morning the strongest challenger to Mitchell, John Tabacco was still tied up at the Board of Elections with the special election less than two weeks away. He was put on the ballot that afternoon but has lost valuable campaign time. The Mitchell campaign, war chest full of the city’s matching funds, has been doing mailings and hiring workers to GOTV all along. The Tabacco campaign was stalled by Mitchell's creative use of the CFB rules and now has to dump mailings made possible by the matching funds just becoming available on a public that has already tired of having their mailboxes full of promises to spend more money the city does not have.
Only the Rich and Insiders Can Beat Tammany’s Rule
Tammany Hall designed the petition scheme which is at the heart of New York’s arcane and complex ballot system, to keep machine candidates in office. The Board of Elections (BOE) also designed by Tammany, reviews petitions and rules candidate on and off the ballot, and consists of the appointees of the democratic and republican political machines. Despite generations of poor management and efforts by several mayors and newspaper editorial boards to reform it, the board continues its Tammany Hall Mission as a Gatekeeper to ballot access, knocking off challengers.
Those who support the petitions system say it prevents candidates without community support from running. What it really does is prevent challengers who cannot afford to pay for petitions, a good election lawyer and court costs - from running for office. Challengers must also have an insider on their campaign team to make it past the petitioning process. To win at the BOE you must bring a court procedure challenging the ruling of the board even before the Board has ruled. Unschooled insurgents chasing after the democratic dream of free and open elections fail to grasp the element of this logic. The machine and incumbents even use government to pay for their candidate’s petitioning by giving out election inspector jobs in exchange for collecting petitions for their candidates. It is a system that Boss Tweed is proud of to this day. It has also robbed us of our democracy and the protections the Founding Fathers designed for us.
Millions of New York’s voters are denied by Tammany’s petition racket, the chance to choose among the best of the potential candidates, who can solve their city’s critical problems. What this system leaves us with is a gang of insiders who have mastered the election process or have family or political connections to the machine and the City’s establishment.
Most incumbents have no challengers in the primary which are the real elections in NYC. Only one incumbent councilmember was defeated in both the 2003 and 2005 elections. More than half of the polling stations in NYC were closed in the last election. In Manhattan in 2008 only two of the eleven Assembly incumbents were challenged, none of the state senate or congressional candidates had an opponent in the primary. Brooklyn has 49 elected officials – 16 councilmembers, 8 State Senators, 19 Assemblymen and 6 Congress members. Only one, Senator Martin Golden, is a Republican. And that one will be gone in 2012 when his gerrymandered district is redrawn by a Democratic majority redistricting team.
Lack of competitive elections has also denied the City real debates on the issues that affect and hurt its residents. The press and campaign issues in the Incumbent Protection Society tend toward political spin designed to empower those already in power. Freedom of the ballot lies at the root of the American Political System. The Founding Fathers believed that decent opposition would not only be necessary to represent the voters, but would also reduce corruption and inefficiencies in government by getting the public educated and behind the true fixes to their problems. According to the intent of the framework of our democracy, today’s Incumbency Protection System has blocked opposition candidates who could have developed public awareness of potential government policies that might help keep the middle class in the City, build the City’s tax base beyond Wall Street and fix our city's schools.
The press and good government groups have been MIA on ballot access. Good Government groups have ignored ballot reform in favor of regulation of campaign financial practices, and the press has been going after the Board of Elections on its management screw-ups, not how it destroys the campaigns of challengers. By corrupting the CFB which was created to increase political competition, with payout delaying tactics, the machine and IPS has shown the newspaper editorial boards and good government groups that they must fight for increased political competition in New York City’s elections, not quick fixes. The Incumbent Protection Society has destroyed democracy in New York and created dysfunctional government in its destructive path, while enriching itself and its friends. Even the rich and established are its victims. Will those who can fix the system be able to fix the city? ….Will they wake up or learn how to? … The Future of New York City depends on it.
The Accidental Ballot Access Reforms
The only reform in ballot access in the last 20 years occurred because the Bush campaign tried to keep John McCain off the New York Primary Ballot in 2000. A Federal Judge ruled after the McCain campaign took the Republican Party to court, to eliminate the need for ADs, EDs and totals on nominating petitions cover sheets. Judge Edward Korman who also ruled that candidates can correct their petitions cover sheets for defects after they are submitted to the Board of Elections, did more then any Good Government group to make a very restrictive ballot access system a little bit easier for challengers.