Brooklyn’s young progressives seek to suspend legal challenges to ballot access amid COVID-19

rodneyse bichotte
Brooklyn Democratic Party boss Rodneyse Bichotte.
Photo by Caroline Ourso

A group of young progressives is looking to make it easier for political candidates to appear on the ballot for upcoming elections in June and November, as the spread of the novel coronavirus threatens to derail the traditional democratic process. 

“This unprecedented emergency must be responded to with prompt, unprecedented action. This is without exaggeration a matter of life or death,” wrote the Brooklyn Young Democrats in an April 4 letter to local party boss Rodneyse Bichotte. 

Traditionally, candidates for office need to gather a certain number of signatures in order for them to appear on the ballot — but anyone living in the district can file a legal challenge on whether those signatures match with actual residents of the district.

But as New Yorkers shelter in place to slow the spread of COVID-19, the youth political organization is calling on Bichotte to seek a suspension of those challenges in an effort to limit the amount of time that candidates and their staff need to spend outdoors. 

“Lives will be lost if we do not end petitioning challenges,” the letter reads. “We urge you to publicly call for the Board of Elections to value the health and safety of government employees and to limit staff to only those necessary to execute a successful June and November 2020 election.” 

The push comes after two Board of Elections employees died from the novel coronavirus at the borough offices, along with 15 people testing positive for the respiratory illness at the agency’s main office in Manhattan, Gothamist reported.

Suspension of petitioning challenges would require either legislation in Albany or executive action from Governor Cuomo — who initially shortened the petitioning window and reduced the threshold to 30 per cent of the usually required amount of signatures on March 14, but signaled his aversion to easing the regulation further without cancelling elections.  

“You’d have to cancel elections, period, for a year and I don’t think we’re in that position,” Cuomo said at his daily press briefing on April 6.

In the event of a legal challenge to ballot-access petitions — which can be for technicalities as mundane as an address crossing onto two lines — candidates must show up at courts or Board of Elections offices to argue their case. 

One federal Brooklyn legislator voiced his support for the push to end petitioning challenges for upcoming elections, saying that the department should focus solely on ensuring the safe proceeding of primary elections in June and general elections in November. 

“We need to prioritize safety over arcane rules. Let’s run clean, open primaries and let the best candidates win,” said a Tweet from Red Hook Rep. Jerry Nadler, who co-signed the letter with a cadre of other political organizations and local electeds.

The party boss in Manhattan, Keith Wright, had already called for the BOE to end petition challenges, and largely end operations for the safety of workers.

“It’s time to shut down the Board of Elections offices, as a matter of public safety. People are dying. We need to end petition challenges now and let the hardworking staff at the Board of Elections focus on preparing for the June primary safely,” Wright said in a statement on April 3.

Sandy Nurse, an insurgent candidate for the special election for the Council seat in Bushwick, went further, claiming that Brooklyn Democratic Party bigwigs were trying to use petition challenges to get more progressive candidates like her off the ballot in favor of candidate and local district leader Darma Diaz.

“The idea that you are going to try to knock all insurgent candidates off the ballot right now, in the midst of an unprecedented health and economic crisis, and punish campaigns for not sending out volunteers during a pandemic, is not just undemocratic — it is perverse, desperate, and downright ugly,” Nurse said.

Bichotte countered that critics were worried they might not make it on the ballot and were using the health emergency to bypass the election process.

“These candidates should not be taking advantage of our current health emergency to perpetrate fraud and coerce their candidacy on the voting community,” Bichotte said. “All candidates, incumbents and insurgents alike are faced with the same requirements.”

Bichotte, who is herself up for reelection for Flatbush’s assembly seat, said she would leave it up to candidates on whether or not they would continue challenging the petitions of their opponents.

Diaz rejected the idea that the Democratic party establishment was trying to push out her opponents, but echoed Bichotte’s sentiment that the election process should continue.

“I would adhere to whatever the governor says on what the next step has to be,” she said.