My Crash Course in NYC's Broken Election System

Justin Wax-Jacobs is a recent candidate for State Assembly.
Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

In late March, Queens Assemblywoman Nettie Mayersohn announced her retirement after 28 years in office, just four months after being reelected. Following her announcement, the Assemblywoman’s chief of staff, Michael Simanowitz, declared his intention to run for Mayersohn’s seat. By retiring mid-term, the Assemblywoman guaranteed that the Democratic Party’s nominee would not be chosen through the regular primary process, but instead selected by her hand-picked Committee to Fill Vacancies. Of the four members of the Committee, which alone has the power to pick the candidate who will receive the Democratic line in a Special Election, two of them are Assemblywoman Mayersohn and Mr. Simanowitz. Despite the obvious odds against it, I decided to contact my local Democratic District Leader, former City Councilman Morty Povman, who is one of the other two members of the Committee, to request an interview to be considered for the nomination.

As a recent college graduate of SUNY Albany, a lifelong member of the community, and a hard-working, first-time candidate, I expected that I would at least be given the opportunity to explain my vision for the district and articulate my positions on the issues of concern to the neighborhoods encompassed by the 27th Assembly District. Instead, I was denied the interview and was told by Mr. Povman that Mr. Simanowitz was "entitled to the nomination", as well as the Assembly seat itself. Furthermore, I was told that the committee had already agreed before the election had even been called by the Governor that Mr. Simanowitz would be the party's nominee.

Though I was deeply disturbed by this backroom selection process, I vowed to continue my candidacy by collecting the 1,500 signatures I needed to be placed on the ballot as an independent, despite the fact that I had only six days to do so. With the help of about 20 friends, family members, and neighbors, I was not only able to reach the 1,500 signature plateau in time, but to surpass it by over 100 signatures. However, following a challenge by Mr. Simanowitz, my petitions were thrown out by the New York City Board of Elections Commission due to the fact that I did not include the specific Assembly District in which I was running on my petitions.

Despite the fact that the Board of Elections, both City and State, is obligated to make all laws, rules and rulings pertaining to election law available to the public, the requirement for independent petitions to have a specific district on the petition sheets appears neither in New York State law nor the Independent Nomination Rules as adopted by the New York City Board of Elections. The only legal reference to such is an obscure court case which is not listed on the BOE's website or referenced in the Independent Nomination Rules. Without such references, the aforementioned information is only accessible to people who know to look for obscure court rulings. The lack of references clearly favors established political parties and demonstrates a prejudice against independent candidates. Furthermore, the rules adopted by the BOE should reflect or refer to any ruling by the judiciary when it pertains to elections. Candidates should not be punished for the BOE's failure to do so.

Moreover, while it may be true that not specifying the district on a petition may confuse those signing the petition, that argument is not relevant in this specific case. Such a ruling is justifiable and understandable in general elections, but does not pertain to a special election, especially the current one in which only two Assembly seats are up for election in the entire county of Queens with enough geographical distance between them that there could be no genuine confusion over which district my petitions pertained to.

Though I am not a lawyer, I did my utmost to study and adhere to the election laws. As a first-time candidate I never anticipated that a technicality so small would be enough to invalidate the incredible efforts of my supporters to collect so many signatures in such a short period of time. Regretfully, I didn’t have the $3,000 several election lawyers quoted to me would be the minimum amount they would charge to prepare my petitions and look them over for errors.

While I believe that the problems with the Board of Elections ruling should entitle me to be put back on the ballot for September 13th, I have learned enough about the process through my short campaign to realize that it is highly unlikely that I will be reinstated. The system works against the little guy, who simply wants to represent and fight for the community he loves, and who believes naively that the people should be allowed to elect whoever they think would best serve them.

Although I faced a hostile environment in my initial attempt to run for public office, my experience has not crushed my dreams of serving my community. Instead, it has empowered me to tell my story to other young people and first-time candidates, and to work as hard as possible to inspire the people of Queens and all of New York City to insist on a system of fair elections that allows us to elect the leaders we really want. The freedom to choose one’s elected representative is the central element of any democracy, and I will continue to work for a system that gives people that freedom instead of one that forces us to settle for officials selected in backroom deals.



Special Elections

While I would say that the $3,000 dollars to petition and the "crushing dreams" language is a little dramatic, this is yet another reason for nonpartisan special elections at the state level. This man could have run on an open ballot against the party choice and had a chance.

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