Are Petition Challenges Voter Suppression?

Petition challenges are, in their current form at least, a mode of candidate suppression that favors establishment candidates over insurgents, and wealthier candidates over their poorer opponents.  The Queens political machine is exercising its muscle in Jamaica to keep a woman Navy veteran off the ballot and ensure that its party stalwart has a clear shot at Malcolm Smith’s senate seat.

The petitioning season is 37 days long and requires candidates for office to develop at least the semblance of a campaign organization--arguably a positive means of filtering out clowns and non-starters.  Acquiring the 1000 signatures necessary for a state senate campaign necessitates getting out a troop of either volunteers or paid canvassers.  The rule of thumb in petitioning is to aim for three times the minimum, in order to account for “bad” signatures: those of non-registrants, non-residents, or duplicates.  So getting on the ballot isn’t something that a non-serious candidate with few resources can consider doing.

The acts of challenging an opponent’s petitions adds an abusive layer to the process, because it costs a huge amount of money to mount a challenge.  Challenges are thus almost always brought against insurgent candidates, and are most often brought by party organizations that want to clear the field for their selected candidate.  Non-establishment candidates rarely have the resources to hire an elections lawyer to pore over hundreds of pages of signatures and cross-reference them with a voter file.

Governor Cuomo’s challenge to Zephyr Teachout’s candidacy is an obvious example.  By challenging her petitions he can force her lean campaign to spend tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees to defend her access to the ballot.  If the challenge works and he gets her thrown off the ballot, so much the better for him, but if the challenge fails, there is no comeback for the Cuomo campaign, and Teachout has to divert campaign money to cover the cost.  The nature of the political system is that the public pays no attention to these squabbles, and accepts the ballot as it reaches the voter as democracy’s fresh slate.  Kicking someone off the ballot is just seen as fair application of the rules.

In Malcolm Smith’s District 14, covering Southeast Queens, a petition challenge is on against candidate Bernadette Semple that illustrates the twisted nature of the challenge process.  Senator Smith, involved in a major corruption trial, is ostensibly running for re-election, but hasn’t raised any money.  Also running are attorney Munir Avery and former councilmember and Queens County Democratic Party choice Leroy Comrie.

Comrie served in the Council as the chair of Land Use and as the head of the Queens delegation.  He ran briefly for Queens Borough President but his tepid campaign was called off early: the rumor was that Queens Dem boss Joe Crowley wanted Comrie to step aside so Melinda Katz could have a clear shot at the post, without having to worry about the large Queens black vote.  Comrie’s reward at this point appears to be total “County” support for his Senate run.

Bernadette Semple threatens Comrie’s campaign because, as the only woman in a three or four-way race, she could make the election seriously competitive.  Semple is also a retired Navy Lieutenant Commander, and unlike Comrie, has no ties to the rats’ nest of corruption that characterizes SE Queens politics.  Comrie probably figures he can easily outgun Munir Avery, whose financing seems largely tapped out and whose support is mostly among the area’s substantial but limited Muslim community.  Running against a woman could pose other challenges.

Semple submitted approximately 2,900 petition signatures, most of which are considered solid, according to people in the know.  But in a startling parallel to what is going on in Brooklyn, where boss Frank Seddio is supporting a petition challenge against Dell Smitherman, who is opposing Senator Sampson’s re-election, the Queens County Dems are apparently organizing a petition challenge in order to secure Comrie a clear ballot.

Petition challenges get very granular, and often hinge on eliminating the signatures of people who live on the border of the district.  This technicality is a powerful yet understated effect of partisan districting.  Elected officials and the party apparatus get to draw the borders of their districts at redistricting time, and as a result many urban districts are totally jackstraw and segmented.  The borders may zig and zag back and forth from block to block, in order to capture or exclude certain segments of voters.  Good government groups have long pointed to partisan districting as a significant way that incumbent electeds protect themselves from challenges.

A side effect of this unfortunate wrinkle in local politics is that people often do not know precisely which district they live in.  If political borders do not fall on natural lines of division (e.g. “south of Union Turnpike”) then it is very hard for a campaign worker, even one who is knowledgeable and informed, to be able to tell a potential signatory who lives near a boundary exactly which district they should vote in.  District maps of sufficient detail are too unwieldy for petitioners to lug around. 

In the end, it seems that candidate suppression through petition challenges is another way for well-funded political machines to amass and retain power.  And in a one-party system, isn't candidate suppression ultimately the same thing as voter suppression?