Editorial: New York must push back against party tyranny

Sen. Malcolm Smith leaving Federal Court following his

Sen. Malcolm Smith leaving Federal Court following his arraignment (John Roca) (Credit: Sen. Malcolm Smith leaving Federal Court following his arraignment (John Roca))

The arrest of Sen. Malcolm Smith, a Democrat accused last week of plotting to bribe Republican Party leaders for permission to run for mayor on the GOP line, highlights a state election system that enables bad behavior.

It's hard to get on the ballot without the backing of a party leader. Lacking that support means candidates must brave a petition process that works against newcomers, who tend to be light on experience, money and manpower.

For registered members of other parties, the challenge is even tougher. Convoluted rules for granting a certificate to nonmembers like Smith to run on another party's ballot line are set forth in a 1947 law that allows party leaders to require something in return. It's a minefield.

In his 2009 bid for re-election, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, by then registered as independent, traversed this danger zone legally by making big donations to GOP organizations in exchange for permission to run as a Republican.

But then there's the cross-endorsement game, which lets major-party leaders bargain to decide who wins offices. And the game lets minor-party bosses barter ballot lines to candidates for perks such as patronage for relatives.

None of this serves voters. All of it must change.

By perpetuating the world's most excruciating petition process as a first hurdle for major-party candidates, New York empowers party leaders and disenfranchises voters.

Tough rules for changing party membership are undue restrictions on voters and candidates. If it took just a month or so to win certification, the temptation for shenanigans would largely disappear.

Although minor parties are a vital part of our system, cross-endorsements let parties with no candidates accrue power by trading ballot lines for patronage and perks.

Fixes? It should be impossible to get the endorsement of more than one party in a political race. Changes in party registration should be fast. These improvements wouldn't create a perfect system. But putting power in the hands of voters -- and not party bosses -- would create more contested elections and improve New York's political climate.


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