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Editorial: End party tyranny of New York elections

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara speaks at a news

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara speaks at a news conference announcing the unsealing of federal bribery and corruption charges against state Sen. Malcolm Smith, New York City Council member Daniel Halloran, Bronx County Republican Party chairman Joseph Savino, Queens County Republican Party vice chairman Vincent Tabone, Spring Valley Mayor Noramie Jasmin and Spring Valley Deputy Mayor Joseph Desmaret. (April 2, 2013) Credit: Craig Ruttle

State Sen. Malcolm Smith, a Queens Democrat, was accused last week of plotting to bribe Republican Party leaders in New York City for their permission to run for mayor as a Republican. The case is shocking in its brazenness, but it also highlights a system that enables bad behavior. No laws can stop wrongdoers. But the state's election system, beyond encouraging illegal manipulation, allows legal maneuvering that is almost as bad.

In New York, it's difficult to get on the ballot without the support of a party leader. Lacking that support means braving a petition process that works against newcomers, who tend to lack money and staff. If you are a registered member of a different party, it's even more difficult. The convoluted rules for granting a certificate to nonmembers like Smith to run on another party's ballot line are set out in the Wilson-Pakula Act of 1947 -- a minefield party leaders use to get things in return.

In 2009, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg traversed this process legally and got permission to run again on the Republican line for re-election. Bloomberg had changed his registration from Republican to independent in 2007, but the more than $3 million he has donated to state and county Republican groups since 2000 smoothed his way.

Then there is the cross-endorsement game, which lets major-party leaders make deals with each other to determine who wins offices. That same game empowers leaders of minor parties to barter their ballot lines for patronage jobs for family members and for outsized influence.

None of it serves the voters. All of it should change.

Consider Suffolk County's district attorney, sheriff and treasurer. In 2009, two men -- County Republican chairman John Jay LaValle and County Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer -- decided who would keep those elective offices.

They made a deal in which District Attorney Thomas Spota, a Democrat, and Treasurer Angie Carpenter and Sheriff Vincent DiMarco, both Republicans, were all anointed via cross-endorsement. The minor parties followed along. No candidate could lose. Suffolk voters will likely see the same ballot this fall.

The state's election law has many problems. Here are some of the worst:

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.

Getting on the ballot is all but impossible without the support of leaders or a significant campaign structure. Gathering acceptable petitions is legally intricate, and few do it well enough to keep rival election lawyers at bay. The process of running under one's own party for office should be simple and easy.

Tough rules for changing party membership are unduly restrictive on voters and candidates. If it took just a month or so to change your party registration, the temptation for shenanigans would largely disappear. Instead, it takes between one and two years for such changes to take effect.

The state of affairs with minor party endorsements further mocks the process. "Third parties" are a vital part of our political process, and can often serve to bring ideas and movements the major parties have ignored to the fore. The Greens and Libertarian parties for example, have had real political philosophies and put up their own candidates.

Since New York is one of the few states that allows cross-endorsements, minor parties that have no candidates can accrue power by trading their ballot lines for patronage and other perks. By letting major-party candidates use their lines in gubernatorial races, they get the 50,000 votes they need to stay on ballots in New York, often in exchange for forfeiting their principles.

This often happens in New York, where the Independence Party, which no longer has any discernible governing philosophy, is said to be particularly fierce in getting what it wants in return for its line. Even worse, some voters check that box because they think they're voting for an "independent." They are not.

Statewide, one of the most legendary practitioners of cross-endorsement leveraging was Ray Harding, who used the decrepit remains of the once-proud Liberal Party to cadge jobs for his two sons and political allies, then pleaded guilty in 2009 to charges that he took $800,000 to do favors for then-Comptroller Alan Hevesi, a Democrat.

Even parties that maintain ballot access with somewhat of an ethos, like the union dominated Working Families Party and the Conservative Party, should have to put up their own candidates in a race or get no line on the ballot. Cross-endorsement creates more ills than good.

It should be easy for New Yorkers to run for office. Candidates should get the endorsement of one party whose views they most represent. And changes in party registration should be quick.

These improvements wouldn't create a perfect system, and many other reforms are needed. Nothing will stop those who subvert their office for personal gain. But putting power in the hands of voters -- and not party bosses -- would create more contested elections and improve the political climate in New York tremendously.