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2nd Circuit upholds NY state rules restricting ballot access

February 10, 2021 Larry Neumeister, Associated Press
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New York state is within its rights to keep its election ballots decluttered and prevent voter confusion with rules limiting how a political party gets on ballots, an appeals court said Wednesday.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a challenge to the state’s new election ballot rules by the SAM Party of New York. It said the party, whose full name is Serve America Movement, was unlikely to succeed with claims that ballot rules violate the First and 14th amendments.

SAM became a political party in 2018 when it ran a gubernatorial ticket that drew over 55,000 votes. Since then, it says it has nominated dozens of successful candidates for offices ranging from village trustee to the House of Representatives, including 19 in the most recent election cycle.

The ruling now puts its status as a political party in jeopardy.

The party claimed state rules amended last April were unconstitutional because they require a party get 130,000 votes or at least 2% of the vote in presidential or gubernatorial elections to maintain a place on the ballot. Previously, the state required only 50,000 votes to qualify.

But a three-judge panel of the 2nd Circuit in Manhattan in a ruling written by Circuit Judge Michael H. Park noted that the U.S. Constitution gives states broad rights over its elections.

“While some voters would surely like to see the SAM Party automatically included on their ballot in the next cycle, the interest of those voters does not outweigh the broader public interest in administrable elections, ensuring that parties enjoy a modicum of electoral support, and the conservation of taxpayer dollars,” the appeals court said.

Michael J. Volpe, a former Pelham mayor and Republican who was a plaintiff in the lawsuit after running for lieutenant governor in 2018 on the SAM ticket, said he was “very disappointed.”

“It’s a sad day for democracy. It limits the options and choices for New York state voters,” Volpe said, adding that it had not yet been decided whether to pursue further appeals.

“Ballot status makes it harder for minor parties to even exist,” he said. “We’re narrowing the choices in democracy, which arguably is against the Constitution.”

Thomas J. Garry, a lawyer who represented the New York State Board of Elections, said the decision recognized important state interests.

“Obviously we are thrilled,” Garry said.

In its ruling, the 2nd Circuit said there was no “severe burden” on the SAM Party because it could still compete as an independent body by collecting 45,000 signatures to place a candidate on the ballot.

The judges noted that New York law distinguishes between political parties and independent bodies with parties receiving more popular support, enjoying privileges and being subject to structural and filing requirements.

The opinion said privileges include access to primaries administered by the government, automatic membership enrollment from voter-registration forms, and permission to maintain a financial account, exempt from ordinary contribution limits, to pay for office space and staff.

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