To Reform Albany: Start Here

Albany’s corruption and incompetence have reached epic proportions this year. The only real hope of fixing things is if voters in New York State elect a new, truly reform-minded generation of politicians.

Right now, the rules — on campaign finance, redistricting, even ballot access — overwhelmingly discourage competition. The good news is that New Yorkers are fed up.

If legislators and Gov. David Paterson want to hold on to their seats, they must prove their commitment to reform by making elections truly competitive.

OPEN THE BALLOT TO MORE CANDIDATES The rules for getting on a ballot in New York are absurd. Petitions must be signed in a very short time. A voter can sign only one candidate’s petition. There are too many names required. The state’s Board of Elections, which sets and enforces many of these rules, is filled with party hacks.

Last month, Bill de Blasio, a Brooklyn Democrat trying to run for New York City’s public advocate job, was briefly removed by the city’s Board of Elections from the Sept. 15 ballot for a typo on the cover sheet. City Councilman Alan Gerson, who is running for re-election from Lower Manhattan, has so far lost his place on the ballot because he tried to correct his own address on a cover sheet for his petitions.

Candidates who can demonstrate genuine public support by paying a modest fee [Ed: Bold added for emphasis] or collecting a modest number of signatures should be allowed to compete. Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh has offered a constitutional amendment that would allow the Legislature to set real qualifications for members of the elections boards. In the meantime, current members can demonstrate their fitness by letting all qualified candidates on to the ballot rather than trying their hardest to keep them off.

REFORM CAMPAIGN FINANCE RULES New York also has one of the most unfair campaign finance systems in the country. Contribution limits barely limit anybody from giving exorbitant amounts to their favorite compliant politician. And there are no limits at all on contributions of so-called housekeeping funds for political parties. Disclosure is poor, and enforcement is lax — all an invitation for Albany politicians to do their worst.

State Senator Joseph Addabbo Jr., a Queens Democrat who chairs the elections committee, said that he and his committee had been putting together “a pretty good” campaign finance reform until the Senate disintegrated into a monthlong leadership stalemate. Mr. Addabbo and his colleagues in the Assembly need to quickly approve real reforms, including public financing of campaigns.

REDISTRICT HONESTLY Every 10 years, legislators in effect create their own voting districts. So it is no surprise that the maps make it difficult-to-impossible for challengers to dislodge a sitting legislator. The only sure way to fix this problem is by moving now to create a nonpartisan redistricting commission — before the 2010 census and the next round of redistricting. The commission would draw lines based on such factors as population, not party affiliation.

This fundamental reform has little hope unless business and public leaders push hard for it. Tom Golisano, the wealthy meddler and occasional candidate from Buffalo who helped orchestrate the June Senate melee claims that he truly wants reform in Albany. He can prove it by financing a public campaign demanding the creation of an independent redistricting commission.