Scaturro: Change this obscure election law that takes choice from voters

If New York wants to maintain a meaningful

If New York wants to maintain a meaningful system with cross-endorsed candidates, something has to change. (Credit: iStock)

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Now that the State Legislature has begun a new session in Albany, it should take up reform of New York's arcane election laws. Let's start with how political parties dispense "Wilson Pakula" authorizations, which determine if candidates registered with one party can run on the line of another.

Under the 1947 Wilson Pakula law, it is not enough for a candidate registered with one party and seeking to run on another party line simply to collect the requisite signatures from voters. The leaders of the other party must also give their approval. The law is one reason former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy was thwarted in his attempted gubernatorial run in 2010.

Named for former Assemb. Malcolm Wilson (R-Yonkers) and state Sen. Irwin Pakula (R-Long Island City), the law was intended to protect the integrity of political parties, but it has had the opposite effect. In practice, party leaders have too often based their decisions on backroom deals rather than the principles of their parties. Leaders of third parties have been especially vulnerable to leaders of the major party, Democrat or Republican, that controls the government in their jurisdiction.


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My own experience with Wilson Pakulas shows how bad the system has become. A registered Republican, I first sought the GOP nomination to run for the congressional seat held by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-Mineola) in 2010, and I wished to run on the Conservative line as well. I initially seemed to have the goodwill of the vast majority of executive committee members of Nassau County's Conservative Party. But my support in that party eroded as soon as the Republican county chairman, to whom I was not beholden, picked someone else at the last minute to run with the GOP endorsement.

Republicans controlled the county -- and about half of the executive committee members of the Nassau Conservative Party held municipal jobs. Several Conservative leaders informed me they feared for their jobs if they defied the will of the GOP chairman. Although the Conservative executive committee ultimately voted 10-9 to grant me a Wilson Pakula, the Conservative chairman refused to file my authorization to be on the ballot with the Board of Elections.

I took the matter to court, where one of the Conservative Party leaders testified to how fear undermined the process. But the Appellate Division shockingly found this issue "academic." That automatically gave the GOP boss-picked candidate the Conservative nomination, denying Conservative voters the opportunity to choose a candidate in a primary.

By 2012, when I made another run for the same nomination against the same GOP rival, the Conservative executive committee was so stacked with municipal employees that I knew going in I wouldn't get a Wilson Pakula. So my campaign circulated special petitions to authorize the one kind of primary that does not require a Wilson Pakula: a write-in, which I won. I went on to face McCarthy in the general election.

Despite that outcome, write-in campaigns are difficult to wage. All who seek reform should consider just how much New York election law discourages candidates not beholden to party leaders from running in the first place. If you don't think that is a major cause of dysfunction in New York politics, think again.

In practice, the conflict of interest faced by party leaders who hold or seek government jobs renders our system ineffective in preserving the integrity of third parties. It violates the principle recognized in Robert's Rules of Order "that no one can vote on a question in which he has a direct personal or pecuniary interest." But try litigating that before a judge whose own nomination is entirely subject to the decision of party leadership.

True reform must come from the State Legislature. At a minimum, election law should bar a party's executive committee members who vote on Wilson Pakulas from holding government jobs or contracts. If New York wants to maintain a meaningful system of cross-endorsed candidates, something has to change. We ought to start by asserting more effectively that our political system should be designed not to benefit party leaders, but to serve the people.

Frank Scaturro was the Conservative Party nominee for the U.S. House of Representatives in New York's 4th District in 2012.

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