The Nassau 3 challenge political petitions

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Dan Janison Melville. N.Y. Tuesday January 26, 2010. Daniel Janison,

Dan Janison has been a reporter at Newsday since 1997, initially as a staff writer for the New ...

Next week, U.S. Senate and House candidates begin to file with election boards the thousands of signed petition pages that they and their supporters journeyed door-to-door to collect, in hopes of qualifying for a spot on the June 26 primary ballot.

Meanwhile, a trio of Nassau County residents is pushing a lawyer-less, long-shot drive in federal court to overturn the very rules that require all those signatures, rules that for generations have frustrated candidates who tried to run without major-party endorsement.

Their case may or may not have a snowball's chance. Either way, however, they produced a polemical 50-plus-page complaint that's worth examining this petition season.

As part of a kitchen-sink approach, the plaintiffs even claim discrimination against the obese. But it's far from frivolous to cast a jaded eye on New York's nitpicky, arcane and sometimes murky ballot-access rules. For many years, earnest reformers such as the New York City Citizens Union have railed to little effect about the state's system of designating petitions.

Plaintiffs Martin Dekom of Manhasset, Kenneth Jacoby of Oceanside and Robert Pendleton of Merrick -- two Republicans and a Conservative, respectively -- cite the Americans with Disabilities Act. They call door-to-door signature collection an outdated practice in the age of locked-up residences and gated communities, which "takes hours and is physically demanding."

Dekom says he has "congenitally defective ankles"; Jacoby, that he's about 60 percent deaf and has a speech impediment; and Pendleton says advanced stenosis curbs his mobility.

They play the fat card, where the complaint states that Dekom and Jacoby "are part of the 68 percent of voting age Americans who are either fat or obese, according to the CDC."

This apparently did not impress U.S. District Court Judge Joanna Seybert. On March 26, she denied the trio's request to order officials to stop the petition process until the merits of their case could be decided.

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"You tell me that you're obese. You don't appear to be obese," Seybert told Dekom.

"Thank you very much," Dekom said.

"You're welcome," the judge said.

Skeptically, she made the point that candidates frequently have friends carry petitions door-to-door, and don't need to canvass themselves.

The Nassau Three also say that signers of petitions, which are public documents, could be subjected to retaliation, such as loss of a county job, for stating a certain "ballot preference," thus violating privacy.

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They discuss how the smallest errors can subject petitions to challenge. They object to allowing appointees of the major parties, who control election boards, to decide petition challenges. "Commissioners are known to bump party insurgents," they state.

They note petitions are in English only, potentially disenfranchising Latino voters. They compare the current setup to vote-suppressing literacy tests.

Most states, they say, simply charge candidates a fee to get on the ballot and "of the handful that still require signature petitions, most are purely symbolic: Tennessee (population 6.4 million) requires all of 25 signatures to run for governor." "And then there's New York," they write, "whose government has treated the right to vote with depraved indifference."

Hyperbole? Maybe. But that's to be expected in a system in which candidacies can live or die based on whether a petition's cover sheet misstates the number of its pages, or a hamlet is listed instead of a town, or a signer is found to have already signed another petition.

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