Hitting the concrete in a suit and tie in temperatures that hovered around oppressive, Justin Wax Jacobs, a 22-year-old Briarwood resident with a penchant for politics, quickly learned to wipe his brow and try in vain to forget about the midsummer heat as he spent 12-hour days collecting signatures to run in the upcoming Sept. 13 special election.
For six days in July, Jacobs, who graduated this year from SUNY Albany with a triple major in political science, East Asian studies and history, canvassed his neighborhood with his family and friends to collect the 1,500 signatures he needed to run on the Independence party line in the special election for the 27th Assembly District, which covers parts of Kew Gardens, Richmond Hill, Rego Park and other areas of eastern Queens.
Nettie Mayersohn, 86, retired as the district’s assemblywoman in March.
In just under one week, Jacobs and about 10 of his volunteers had collected more than 1,600 signatures. After being told by the Queens Democrats that there wasn’t time to interview him to determine whether he could be a viable candidate for the party as they instead chose Michael Simanowitz, a former aide to Mayersohn, Jacobs was ecstatic that he might still be able to make a bid for the seat that represents the neighborhood where he has lived nearly his entire life.
Then, however, the city Board of Elections ruled last week that Jacobs’ signatures were invalid because he had not written the number of the Assembly district on top of each page of signatures.
“I followed the New York laws and rules regarding the Independence nomination, and I did everything that the petition form from the Board of Elections said to do,” Jacobs said. “Nowhere on the sample form did it say I had to have the Assembly district number on top of every single page. It’s upsetting.”
For a number of good government groups across the state, Jacobs’ situation is representative of New York’s tedious election laws, which they argue seriously deter people other than the party favorites from running for office.
“It demonstrates all that is wrong with ballot access and, in particular, with special elections,” said Alex Camarda, director of public policy and advocacy at Citizens Union. “Here’s a young person who’s civically engaged, but because parties choose their nominees in special elections he has to go the Independence route and get 1,500 signatures in a very short time period. And he has to do all of that without running afoul of the law.”
That — not running afoul of the law — can be especially tricky when a candidate is 22 years old, works at a summer camp for underprivileged youth and has no money to pay for a lawyer who can spend hours ensuring the candidate is doing everything perfectly, so as to not make a mistake in the jungle that is state election law, Jacobs said.
“The function of all these convoluted rules is to protect the established parties from insurgent parties and to protect the established office holders from insurgents,” said Michael Krasner, a political science professor at Queens College. “The fact that you can make a good living as an election lawyer, someone who’s an expert in minutiae in laws, shows how difficult it is for someone without that expertise to mount a challenge to a candidate from one of the major parties.”
While Gov. Cuomo has said he hopes to make election reform a priority next year, Krasner and others have expressed skepticism that legislators would want to change the current system that often gives them a great deal of stability.
According to a June Citizens Union report, almost one-third of state legislators were elected in special elections — which good government representatives said leaves them little incentive to reform a system that has ushered them into power.
“It’s not surprising, these politicians’ instincts,” said Russ Haven, a representative of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “You want to set up a system in a way that makes it hard for others to challenge you.”
But this system deters voters from thinking they even have a say in the election process, Camarda said, noting voter turnout for a special election hovers around a dismal 6 percent.
U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley (D-Queens, Bronx), the Queens Democratic party leader and the recognized kingmaker when it comes to selecting candidates for special elections in the borough, did not return a request for comment for this article, nor did the city BOE.
Evan Stavisky, a spokesman for Simanowitz, declined to comment.
Robert Hornak, a spokesman for the Queens GOP, said Republican officials have not been especially concerned with election reform, though he said “the process does need simplification.”