After 30 days of knocking on doors in mid-summer heat, Argy thought the work of getting on the ballot to run for mayor of Niagara Falls was done. Then he discovered the state’s excessively complicated rules for running for office.
He was knocked off the ballot mostly for technicalities – political party members who printed their names instead of signing them or who had already signed another petition.
That was six years ago. Like many political novices kicked out of a race before it even began, he hasn’t attempted another run since.
“People told me, after all was said and done, the most important person in your campaign is your petition manager,” said Argy, now 53 and a foreman in the local sheet metal union. “And it shouldn’t be that way.”
Welcome to primary politics in New York State, where newcomers are welcomed like a robocall at dinnertime. The state’s election system, built up through the years to protect those who already have their political fiefdoms, is stacked against fresh faces.
The ballot rules are so cumbersome that candidates often have to gather two or three times as many signatures as required in order to survive petition challenges. Candidates without the blessing of the party elite or the resources to hire a lawyer are disadvantaged from the get-go, especially if they’re unfamiliar with the system.
It’s not just those working outside the party who get entangled by ballot rules. This year, the candidacies of a few nonparty members picked by the Erie County Democratic Party landed in court – where they won – after their forms were postmarked a day late.
Rules are rules, and commissioners can’t choose which ones to enforce.
“It’s easy to say that it’s unfair to people, and the truth is sometimes it is,” said county Elections Commissioner Dennis Ward. “But it’s not quite as easy when you’re sitting on this side of the table, and say, ‘What do I do?’ ”
The rules, Ward said, have been developed over the years “to apply to every circumstance and every candidate equally.”
Ward points out that detailed instructions are available for candidates and that the vast majority of petitions make it through with no problem. He even cautions petition collectors not to use Flair pens because of the risk of signatures bleeding in the rain.
You can hardly blame politicos for taking advantage of the law.
Which is exactly is why state laws should be scaled back to require fewer signatures or more time to collect petitions – giving all candidates willing to expend the effort a better chance of getting on the ballot, not just those who know how to work the system.
“You’re not going to get a new set of eyes or a new set of voices with the way things are,” Argy said.
Argy now looks at the mayor and wonders why he ever wanted the job. He’s seen how Mayor Paul Dyster, whom Argy praised for improving streets and other initiatives in the Falls, has taken heat from those who might want his job.
Perhaps, I joked about his attempt at politics, he lucked out when he was knocked off the ballot. He didn’t disagree. Sadly, that’s exactly the type of disillusionment this system breeds.