If you want to run for political office as an independent, or want to nominate an independent candidate, you have two options. You can have a write-in candidacy, depending on voters to remember your name without seeing it on the official ballot, or you can try for an official ballot line. Getting the ballot line means getting a certain minimum number of signatures based on location and the office in question. Once you turn in your signatures, they're subject to challenge by lawyers for the other parties, who remain constantly albeit selectively vigilant against fraud, depending on whom the independent is expected to take votes from. Regardless of your popularity or the popularity of your platform, you can be knocked off the ballot on the complaint of a rival, the most interested party possible, for improprieties in the collection of names.
Such is the rule of law as vindicated by Carmella Mantello, the Republican candidate for Mayor of Troy, N.Y., following an Appellate Division court ruling stripping one of her competitors, self-appointed Revolutionary party candidate Jack Cox, of his spot on the ballot. GOP attorneys found five people to testify that their signatures had been counterfeited on Cox's list. Reading of this, it occurred to me how easily a hostile person could sabotage an independent petition campaign. Cox reportedly went door-to-door collecting signatures; how careful was he to check who lived at each house he visited? What would stop a Republican or any other mischief maker from deliberately putting someone else's name on Cox's petition in the expectation that it would be challenged and Cox's candidacy curtailed? That scenario may seem unlikely at first glance, but it seems more plausible than Cox or a cohort forging five signatures when he eventually turned in nearly 400 more than he needed to earn a ballot line? It may be that Mantello only needed to prove that five signatures were fraudulent, and that more are suspect, but no one, to my knowledge, is making the latter assertion.
Mantello, who hopes to succeed a Republican incumbent, says that she "encourage[s] anyone who wants to run for office to run for office....But you have to do it legitimately." Her Democratic rival, predictably enough, denounces her for "hir[ing] a high-powered attorney to deprive an average guy of the same privilege that is afforded to her," but who doubts that Democrats would go to court just as readily if they felt that an independent would cost them as many votes as Cox apparently threatened to cost Republicans? But let's go back to Mantello's moral: "you have to do it legitimately." What, exactly, is legitimate about an electoral process that handicaps new parties or individuals outside established parties, that imposes tests on some but not on others who have earned "immunity" based on past success? What's legitimate about a ballot that serves as a gate and is equipped with gatekeepers empowered to determine who deserves to appear on a list of candidates? Official ballots were once considered a necessary remedy for corrupt election practices, but the physical limitation of any official ballot is a corruption in its own right. It automatically requires the imposition of tests (imposed by parties interested in the case) to determine who the "real" candidates are, since there can't be room for everyone, just as there's never time enough for all possible candidates to participate in a debate. Any free election should start with an assumption of the equality of all candidates. If all candidates can't fit on a physical ballot, then we should reconsider the concept of a physical ballot and consider the alternatives new information technologies make possible.
On Election Day, no voter should have to take an extra step to register support for his or her candidate that other voters don't need to take. Jack Cox intends to continue contesting the mayoral election, accepting the handicap of a write-in candidacy. Actually, there'd be nothing wrong with a write-in campaign, as long as every candidate was a write-in candidate, or the modern equivalent of one. Until then, as long as elections are unequal under the rule of law, are they really free?