Everyone who pays attention to politics and governance knows New York State’s reputation for dysfunction and corruption. Yes, the situation does appear to have improved somewhat under Gov. Cuomo — though recent revelations about how his own anti-corruption commission was hampered are troubling — but too many decisions are still made in the shadows, and far too many officials are found to be criminals.
What may be less known is how dysfunctional the system is for those people just trying to run for office against incumbents or those who otherwise are part of the establishment. New York almost stands alone in this respect too, as it is one of only a few states that prevents people from running through an overly cumbersome ballot access system. While the stated goal of the system is to ensure that only genuine candidates with at least a shot of winning get on the ballot, the effect is to give the establishment an unfair means by which it can perpetuate itself.
Case in point is that of Bernadette Semple, a political newcomer and Navy combat veteran running against indicted incumbent state Sen. Malcolm Smith of Southeast Queens in the Democratic primary. Also running is longtime official Leroy Comrie, who’s the favorite in the race. They all need to collect 1,000 valid petition signatures to get on the ballot, no problem for Smith and Comrie. Semple managed it to, filing 1,035, as certified by the Board of Elections. And there are a million nitpicky ways signatures can be declared invalid, beyond the reasonable rules meant to detect actual false ones.
Those with party and financial backing do all they can to keep challengers off the ballot, so Comrie is appealing the BOE decision. Semple will have to defend herself in court, using up vital resources. Many good people have had to drop out of races in the past because they could not afford to do that, and she likely will too.
It would be better for all concerned — especially the voter — if Semple could just run for the seat and Comrie were only able to defeat her at the polls. The good government group Citizens Union believes the petition signature rules should be either loosened or abandoned, noting that few states have anything like them. We tend to agree. Let the people, not the parties and the lawyers, decide who can run, and possibly even win.