Late Gov. Malcolm Wilson, who as an assemblyman co-wrote the...

Late Gov. Malcolm Wilson, who as an assemblyman co-wrote the Wilson-Pakula Act with former State Sen. Irwin Pakula. Credit: Stan Wolfson

The peculiarity of New York’s rules to qualify for election ballots popped into the open, largely unnoticed, on Long Island this month.

The Democrats moved to put Steven Dellavecchia, from West Babylon, on their November ballot line for the 9th Assembly District seat, against the incumbent, Republican Michael Durso, from Massapequa Park. Two years ago, Durso beat Dellavecchia for the same seat, garnering nearly 70% of the vote, so this contest arouses little if any suspense.

Our concern here isn’t who wins a legislative seat but the way nominations are made. Dellavecchia is enrolled with the Conservative Party. To run as a Democrat, he needs what’s called a Wilson-Pakula authorization, by which the Democratic Party gives special permission for him to be nominated.

The party rules indicate that because AD9 is in both Suffolk and Nassau counties, both county committees must vote to give Dellavecchia this nomination. Only Suffolk seems to have submitted an authorization — a procedural error admitted by party officials. But Republicans, secure that Durso will prevail (he also has the Conservative endorsement), don’t seem very motivated to try to void Dellavecchia’s nomination.

What’s most revealing here is that enforcement of the rule won’t occur automatically. Election boards here and elsewhere divide power equally between Democrats and Republicans. The presumption is that one party becomes a guardian against potential abuse by the other.

But in a case like this, there can be a tacit nonaggression pact, or more specifically a nonenforcement pact, forgiving the breach of the rules. The state Board of Elections has the power to throw out this Wilson-Pakula as void “on its face.” Will it?

The Wilson-Pakula law was enacted in the 1940s with the aim of keeping loyalists of one party from making incursions on another party, by competing in and thus manipulating the other’s primaries.

Mostly, the law has produced cross-endorsement deals between party bosses. One such deal especially stinks in retrospect: Since-convicted former District Attorney Thomas Spota ran on both major-party lines for reelection. Shouldn’t the people have had a choice?

Choice is most commonly denied when the county leaders collaborate on judge nominations. 

Party bosses tilting nominations is a bane elsewhere. Last month in New Jersey, voting rights advocates won big when a federal judge ruled against the use of a primary ballot design that gave superior display to party organization-backed candidates.

It’s long since time for this state’s lawmakers to consider changes to current laws and party rules that could smooth candidates’ ballot access in a fair manner and ensure rules enforcement regardless of any backroom “understandings.”

Elected officials in Albany could consider a return to open primaries. Or an end to traditional “fusion” voting. Alternatives are not often debated, but should be. The current party duopoly is bound to draw more dissatisfaction in the years ahead; it’s time to plan for the future of democracy with voters in mind.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.

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