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Candidates and Democratic Groups Call for an End to Ballot Petition Challenges

A sign directs voters toward the polling site at PS 70 in Astoria, Queens.
A sign directs voters toward the polling site in Astoria, Queens, on June 25, 2019.
Photo: Danny Laplaza /THE CITY

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As the city Board of Elections (BOE) works to keep upcoming primary elections on track, some officials are calling for an end to in-person ballot petition challenges amid the coronavirus crisis.

Candidates who want to appear on the upcoming June 23 primary ballot — rescheduled from April 28 — must collect signatures for a petition. But state law allows any registered voter to challenge signatures.

Any objection requires candidates or their representatives to show up in person at 42 Broadway to face the BOE’s 10 commissioners and support staff — complicating social distancing efforts.

Candidates’ allies typically challenge opponents’ petitions in an effort to legally kick them off the ballot before election day. Objections can be very technical and minute, and go line-by-line.

Brandon Stradford, a Democrat vying to unseat state Sen. Diane Savino (D-Staten Island/Brooklyn), said he has to go to the BOE’s Manhattan offices later this month over a petition challenge lodged by one of her supporters. Stradford’s calling for suspension of the practice.

“This is just dragging in these Board of Elections people again and again,” Stradford told THE CITY. “Social distancing is being thrown right in the trash. Everyone involved has to arrive at the board office.”

Brandon Stradford
Brandon Stradford launches his campaign for State Senate with a health fair on Jan. 25 in a New Brighton church.
Courtesy of Stradford for Senate

The challenges were related to whether signees actually lived in the district and were registered to vote.

A spokesperson for Savino’s campaign didn’t return a request for comment.

Manhattan Democratic Party Chair Keith Wright told THE CITY this week that he’s been fielding calls from workers at the city’s Board of Elections concerned for their safety.

“These people are working in very close quarters, right next to each other,” said Wright. “Since we rescheduled the elections for June, they should take a week off and clean the place out. Everyone else is on hiatus.”

Brooklyn Republican Party Chair Ted Ghorra told THE CITY that the party collectively decided not to file objections to petitions in light of the pandemic.

“Our actions on our own part speak for itself, and in light of the broader circumstances — globally, nationally, and especially locally – an increased level of civility and discourse is called for and needed,” said Ghorra.

‘Lives Will be Lost’

A coalition of Brooklyn elected officials, progressive groups and candidates wrote an open letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte, the Brooklyn Democratic party chair, on Saturday asking for a halt to the petition challenges.

“We are calling on you to demand that Governor Cuomo shutdown all petitioning challenges currently in motion and that all candidates who have already filed challenges rescind them immediately,” the letter reads. “Simply put, lives will be saved if we end petition challenges immediately. Lives will be lost if we do not end petition challenges. There is no middle ground.”

Following the letter’s release, U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-Brooklyn) tweeted his support for the movement.

“I’m joining the call to suspend petition challenges,” said Nadler. “We need to prioritize safety over arcane rules. Let’s run clean, open primaries and let the best candidates win.”

The Board of Elections didn’t return requests for comment about personnel with COVID-19. But WNYC reported Friday that 15 employees have tested positive and three have died from the virus.

Bichotte, the Brooklyn Democratic chair, who said that she’s lost family members to COVID-19, told THE CITY that the BOE should continue with the petition challenges as is.

“Even in the aftershock of the 9/11 attacks, we persevered in carrying out our constitutional duty to hold elections,” she said in a statement Tuesday. She added that the city BOE has limited staffing, provides protective equipment and enforces social distancing.

“I believe in democracy and letting the process run as normally as possible,” said Bichotte. “All candidates being challenged can choose to not continue with the petition challenging process and court hearings.”

Brooklyn Young Democrats President Christina Das, who lives in Bichotte’s district, pushed back on the party boss’ stance.

“It would not hinder democracy and it would only further democracy to allow us all, especially as Democrats, to be able to come together and allow everyone who legitimately meets the 30% threshold to be on the ballot,” said Das, referring to the reduced number of signatures needed to appear on a ballot due to an executive order from Cuomo.

Representatives for the Queens, Bronx, and Staten Island Democratic Parties didn’t immediately return requests for comment. The Staten Island GOP chair didn’t immediately return a request for comment.

“I get it, this is a democracy and everyone has their right to do this,” said Stradford, the Savino challenger. “But do we need to put this gamesmanship at this time over public health?”

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