McCain vs. New York

The GOP presidential candidate says he'll sue if the state's byzantine laws keep him off the ballot.

Published December 9, 1999 11:00AM (EST)

John McCain may have been able to outlast his tormenters in a Vietnam prisoner of war camp, but that doesn't mean he's equipped to outsmart New York's tortuous ballot access

The Arizona Senator announced Thursday morning that he will file a lawsuit in federal court "in the coming weeks" to have New York's ballot access laws declared unconstitutional because they present an "undue and overwhelming burden" upon presidential candidates.

"I went down to the state capitol in New Hampshire," McCain said at New York University news conference, where he was flanked by his lawyers, Burt Neuborne and Richard Emery, who have a history of taking on civil rights cases. "I handed the Secretary of State a check for -- I think it was $500 -- I'm on the ballot in New Hampshire."

Not so in New York, where a Republican presidential candidate is required to collect as many as 890 signatures in each of the state's 31 congressional districts for two separate petitions -- one for delegates and another for the candidate. The rules -- which have often played to the advantage of the candidate with the broadest party support -- require that each petition be filled out meticulously -- if a voter fills in Manhattan instead of New York under county, for example, that form could be invalid. A candidate risks getting knocked off the ballot if there are any errors.

And even if a Republican presidential candidate survives the challenges, the ballot for GOP contenders lists the names of delegates in larger print than the actual presidential candidate -- making it difficult for voters to determine who they're electing.

"We go out in the cold weather, we get the signatures, we survive the challenges and then you have this terrible, terrible process where people don't know who they're voting for," says Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari, the McCain campaign's New York chairman." It shouldn't be that way."

But it is. In fact, the laws in New York have been so byzantine that 1996 was the first year in history that Republicans had a choice between at least two candidates for the Republican nomination for president in all of the state's congressional districts.

After that year, Steve Forbes, represented by Emery and Neuborne, successfully sued the state for access to the ballot. In the wake of the bad press that followed the Forbes lawsuit, New York Gov. George Pataki promised to rewrite the laws. He did. Candidates now need only a tenth of the signatures they used to.

Still, that's a half a percent of a district's registered Republicans, a considerable number of signatures. Full of fire and brimstone, Emery called Pataki and state Republican Party Chairman Bill Powers, who are supporting Texas
Gov. George W. Bush, "commissars in a small Albanian backwater political system. They are restricting the voters from making a choice for what may well turn out to be -- and appears to be -- the leading Republican candidate for president." Emery's comment was a little hyperbolic -- McCain is still running a distant second in New York.

Bush supporters haven't said whether they'll try to keep McCain off the ballot, but Dan Allen, spokesman for the state Republican Party, defended the new law.

"I find it shocking that Mr. Emery doesn't believe that Sen. McCain can't get himself on the ballot. The governor has worked hard to get the laws eased. In one district you only need 82 signatures. It's surprising to me that Mr. Emery doesn't think John McCain will be able to do that."

His lawyers clearly don't think he can maneuver around all the legal roadblocks by the deadline. But Emery and Neuborne aren't seeking just to get McCain on the ballot -- they're trying to get the law thrown out altogether, claiming it's unduly burdensome.

"The New York primary, because of the fact that its on March 7, increases in importance in this process we're going through," McCain said Thursday. "Every pundit I know says the nomination will be decided that day because you have California, New York and 13 other states who will hold their primary on the same day." If McCain is unable to secure a position on the ballot, that decision just might be a foregone conclusion.

A victory in the courts may be McCain's only chance to steal some of New York's 101 delegates to the Republican National Convention -- the third largest delegation in the nation -- from front-runner George W. Bush.

Without them, a victory in New Hampshire -- which now seems well within reach -- may be a pyrrhic, indeed.

By Andrea Bernstein

Andrea Bernstein is a New York journalist.

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John Mccain R-ariz.