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Spitzer’s petition challenge

New York's election laws make it easy for the comptroller candidate's rivals to attempt to throw him off the ballot

A comeback from the political dead is never easy. But resurrection under New York’s strict election laws takes special powers of persistence.

Ask Eliot Spitzer, who is scrambling to gather at least 3,750 signatures from supporters before midnight at the end of Thursday, and might still not be able to run for city comptroller against Democratic primary frontrunner Scott Stringer if his enemies have their way.

The disgraced Democratic candidate, who has built a career flaunting his ability to go head to head with special interests, finds himself lacking allies at a critical time.

Comptroller candidate Eliot Spitzer gathered petition signatures in Union Square on Monday. AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Comptroller candidate Eliot Spitzer gathered petition signatures in Union Square on Monday. AP Photo/Seth Wenig

That’s because in New York, private citizens affiliated with interest groups can thwart a candidate’s run for office by invalidating some among the stack of voter petition signatures required to enter the race.

And with a long list of powerful enemies – first from his days as a hard-hitting attorney general, and later from his clashes with lawmakers as New York governor – many are taking aim, experts say.

“I think Spitzer is much more vulnerable than a lot of people think he is,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of public affairs and political history at Princeton University. “That fact will give some energy to someone who will oppose him or challenge him.”

If his first two days on the campaign trail says anything about what is to come, Spitzer might have to rely on his one-man shtick.

Sweating profusely under a hot sun on Monday at Union Square, the candidate’s critical lack of entourage showed. “Where is your wife?” shouted a New York Post columnist to Spitzer’s embarrassment.

His visible campaign staff consisted of a single clipboard-bearing young staffer.

“Uh, I don’t know where they are,” Spitzer said. “Right now it looks like none.” (The Spitzer campaign later said that eight canvassers had been on site.)

Still, experts agree that Spitzer’s large personal wealth might be just enough to buy him a few thousand friends.

Spitzer is the son of a real estate developer, in a family whose fortune is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. He said he would forego public funding in favor of financing his own campaign, which is expected to cost several million dollars.

Earlier this week, Spitzer told The New York Times he planned to enlist an army of 100 canvassers to gather the signatures.

“City-wide race in NYC needs petition gatherers / paid canvassers starting ASAP through this coming Thursday,” said an ad posted on Monday on Craigslist, without mentioning Spitzer directly.

His spokesperson did not reply to a request for details on signatures gathered. “This is a sprint, not a marathon,” she said.

But his go-it-alone attitude, once a feather in his cap, could now prompt his opponents from the finance and labor worlds to organize a challenge against his designating petition.

Under New York’s notoriously cumbersome election law, taking a shot at the ability of a candidate to enter the race is only a few pieces of paperwork away for any qualified voter.

Candidates’ ballot petitions are routinely and easily challenged. Only registered voters who are members of the candidate’s political party and reside in the district in question can sign a petition. A signature can be invalidated if it flouts that rule or many of the others spelled out in New York State election law, ranging from a requirement for proper cover sheets to personal information, such as home address, about the signers.

“It doesn’t have to be Scott Stringer who challenges it,” said Kenneth Sherrill, an emeritus politics professor at Hunter College, pointing to the bad publicity and cost this would likely involve for Spitzer’s rival for the Democratic nomination. “Anybody who doesn’t like Eliot Spitzer can challenge it,” he added. “The teachers’ union could do it; someone from the New York Stock Exchange could do it.”

As attorney general, Spitzer sued, ultimately unsuccessfully, to challenge the massive pay package granted to NYSE CEO Richard Grasso.

“If I was the head of the New York Stock Exchange, there would be something very delicious about going to court and charging Eliot Spitzer with having petitions that were permeated with fraud,” suggested Sherrill.

Unions have their own reasons to hold a grudge. One among them, the vast United Federation of Teachers (UFT) fought with the former governor over expansion of charter schools.

Scott Stringer’s campaign declined to comment for this article, as did the UFT and the NYSE.

To ascertain whether a candidate submitted enough signatures, petitions are weighed after being filed at the Board of Elections.

“If it passes the weight test, then there’s an assumption that everything else is valid,” said Board of Elections communications director Valerie Vazquez. “Then a person can file general objections against a petition. After that you have to file specifications,” she said.

The practice of challenging petitions is so common that candidates usually gather at least three times the number of signatures required to act as a buffer.

For example, Spitzer’s opponent in the primary, Scott Stringer, has said he would submit more than 100,000 signatures. Spitzer himself said during a radio interview Tuesday that he hoped to gather 7,500 names.

Any challenges must be filed with the Board of Elections within three days of the filing of the petitions. That means Monday at the latest.

According to the New York City Board of Elections’ annual report, out of 3,242 petitions for party-affiliated candidates filed in 2012, the board invalidated 607.

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