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Judge Rejects New York GOP Rules, Opens Up Primary Ballot

By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 5, 2000; Page A06

NEW YORK, Feb. 4—A federal judge today declared New York's Republican ballot access rules unconstitutional and opened the presidential primary ballot on March 7 to all candidates, including Arizona Sen. John McCain.

The ruling marked the culmination of a months-long battle by McCain to place his name on the New York ballot against the wishes of the state GOP, which is controlled by Gov. George E. Pataki and allied with the man he has endorsed for president, Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

With pressure growing to abandon an effort that some Bush allies feared was giving McCain ammunition for his message of reform, Bush and Pataki ordered their allies to halt the anti-McCain effort on Thursday. Indeed, state GOP leaders capitulated more thoroughly than U.S. District Judge Edward Korman apparently intended to require them to, according to a lawyer involved in the issue.

While Korman had been prepared to order up a new signature-collection formula for primary ballot qualification, lawyers for the state GOP agreed in negotiations with McCain's legal team today to accept a completely open primary that will allow all the Republican candidates to run in all of the state's 31 congressional districts regardless of the number of signatures they have gathered. Bush himself will be permitted to run in the district where he had been kicked off the ballot because of fraud committed by local Republicans in the gathering of signatures. Under the judge's order codifying the agreement between McCain and the state GOP, Bush, McCain, Steve Forbes and Alan Keyes must simply submit lists of qualified delegate candidates for each district by Feb. 10 to get on the March 7 primary ballot.

"I'm glad there will not be a repetition of the kind of machine-style political control of the selecting of the nominee of our party," McCain said after Korman's order.

The GOP's abrupt cave-in comes as Bush, once the solid Republican front-runner, is facing a serious challenge from McCain, who won Tuesday's New Hampshire primary and is strongly contesting the Feb. 19 South Carolina primary.

New York's Republican ballot-access process, among the most restrictive in the nation, would have strongly favored Bush--until today. Labor-intensive and expensive, it requires the gathering of separate petition signatures in each of the state's 31 congressional districts to qualify a slate of delegates and alternates to the party's nominating convention. Under the old rules, McCain had qualified for only 19 of the 31 districts.

Korman has sent the ballot-access process back to the state legislature for new rules to be written, saying that the process "poses an undue burden in its totality on the right to vote under the First Amendment."

He also criticized as unconstitutional requirements that witnesses to petition signatures had to be Republican-registered district residents and that witnesses and signers had to precisely state the town or city where they are resident. Korman called this rule a "trap for the unwary," such as people who would be disqualified for listing their town or city as Brooklyn, which is a borough of New York City.

These rules, said Korman, were intended "to disadvantage a candidate for president who does not enjoy the support of the Republican State Committee. This burden is not coincidence. Instead, it is a product of deliberate design . . . ."

E. Joshua Rosenkranz, president of New York University's Brennan Center for Justice, which represented McCain, said the state GOP's rules seemed designed by "Monty Python."

"What the judge has ordered is that New York state's democracy should look like the democracy of the mainstream of American states," Rosenkranz said.

The state GOP committee's chairman, William D. Powers, issued a brief and subdued statement defending the Republican ballot process. "While we will certainly abide by the decision reached by the court today, we respectfully disagree with it," Powers said.

McCain is running as an outsider against a vast party machine, and by changing its tack toward him, Pataki and other GOP leaders hope to rob him of the underdog's appeal. "There is no question that John McCain has been hiding behind the ballot access issue," said Michael McKeon, a Pataki spokesman. "When you take that issue off the table, there's not much left."

The New York ballot opening to McCain redounds to Bush's benefit in the long run, said Kieran Mahoney, a Republican strategist who is not working for any of the presidential candidates. McCain's campaign coffers are nowhere near as large as Bush's, which puts him in a difficult position with so many big-money primaries coming up.

"It is a good day for the Bush campaign; bad day for McCain," said Mahoney. "How's he going to do California, New York and all these other places on seven million bucks?"

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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