If the Party Witness Rule Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

     (CN) – New York primary hopefuls still must rely on members of their own political parties to witness petition signatures, the 2nd Circuit ruled.



     Two Brooklyn candidates, canvassers and voters challenged the constitutionality of the state’s Party Witness Rule, which they claimed violated free-speech rights.
     Candidates who want to compete for a certain party nomination in New York must first collect a certain number of signatures from voters registered in the same party. Aside from notary publics or commissioners of deeds, however, only other party members can witness these voters’ signatures.
     The Party Witness Rule was introduced in the early 1950s to curb abuses in which members of one political party took part in an opposing party’s primary to help tip the balance in general elections.
     A federal judge upheld the rule on summary judgment in 2008, and the Manhattan-based 2nd Circuit affirmed Friday, ruling that the plaintiffs “are without right to have non-party members participate in a political party’s nomination process.”
     The court’s 11-page opinion says the rule did not violate the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights.
     “The Party Witness Rule imposes little or no burden on plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights,” Judge Peter Hall wrote for a three-judge panel. “Although plaintiffs claim that the Rule operates as a restraint on political speech, at bottom they assert an associational right to have non-party members participate in party primary elections. Because political parties have a strong associational right to exclude non-members from their candidate nomination process, plaintiffs have no constitutional right pursuant to which such participation may be effected.”
     “A political party’s associational right to exclude forecloses the possibility that non-party members have an independent First Amendment right to participate in party affairs,” he added.
     The two prospective candidates who wanted to use nonparty member witnesses had “ample access to the ballot both in the primary and general elections,” the judges noted.
     “Moreover, if open access to the general election ballot were not by itself enough, the Party Witness Rule does not substantially restrict the candidate plaintiffs’ access to the primary ballot,” according to the ruling. “Someone running for civil judge in New York City – as the candidate plaintiffs have already done and would like to do again – needs to obtain at least 4,000 party-member signatures in order to appear on the primary ballot. In other words, there will be at least that number of potential witnesses within the relevant district.”
     The federal appeals court disagreed that circulating candidate petitions constitute protected political speech.
     “Plaintiffs are only restrained from engaging in speech that is inseparably bound up with the subscribing witness plaintiffs’ association with a political party to which they do not belong,” Hall wrote. “As plaintiffs have no right to this association, they have no right to engage in any speech collateral to it.”
     The judges concluded that the state had “a legitimate interest in protecting its political parties from party raiding” when it enacted the Party Witness rule.
     “The Party Witness Rule helps combat party raiding by denying hostile non-party elements access to one part of a political party’s nomination process,” Hall said.

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