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Lawsuit says state changed petition signature rules mid-game

Shortly after the State Legislature last month reduced the number of petition signatures needed to qualify for the election ballot, attorney Peter A. Reese decided to run for county executive.

He began collecting signatures for an expected Democratic primary against incumbent Mark C. Poloncarz, and as a longtime party activist, felt as knowledgeable as anyone about the sometimes tricky process. In addition, the reduction of valid signatures needed from 2,000 to 1,500, he believed, only bolstered his chances when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed the bill on Feb. 20.

But the Legislature and governor performed a partial about face, he said, when they reinstated the 2,000 signature threshold for voters in New York City, plus Nassau and Erie counties in a second bill that took effect Monday.

Now Reese and several others running for various offices are challenging the new rules in court, contending they are aimed at them by making it more difficult to qualify for the ballot. He also maintains the state has essentially changed the rules in the middle of the game.

“[The law] has the effect of raising the signature requirements for Erie County residents during the petitioning process, only seven days before the first day to file designating petitions,” he says in his lawsuit. “Candidates … have had the goalposts moved in the fourth quarter of the game just as the two-minute warning has been called.”

Elections officials, however, disagree with Reese's interpretation of the law. Erie County Republican Elections Commissioner Ralph M. Mohr said Friday that the second law that Reese is challenging does not change the reduction in necessary signatures resulting from the first law.

"We maintain that nothing has changed," Mohr said, adding that Reese or any other candidate for county executive must now submit 1,500 valid signatures,  not 2,000.

He also said signatures for other offices also now require the lower number recently passed by the Legislature.

Dave Thompson, a spokesman for Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan, D-Buffalo, said checks with the Assembly Ways and Means Committee as well as Assembly lawyers also indicate the lower number of required signatures remains in effect.

Reese maintains his suit will settle any questions surrounding the laws. And in court papers he submitted in Niagara County, Reese cites the opposition of several legislators raising similar concerns. State Sen. Michael H. Ranzenhofer, R-Clarence, for example, said the new bill reinstating the higher signature requirement for select counties “doesn’t pass the smell test.”

“To pass a bill which is punitive, discriminatory and unfair just doesn’t make any sense,” Ranzenhofer said on the Senate floor on March 12.

Reese’s court papers also focus on party leaders like Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner and state Chairman Jay Jacobs. In a Buffalo News story announcing the challenge to Poloncarz, Zellner said Reese “represents the very worst of what Democrats were in the county" before they changed the way "this party does business." Jacobs is Nassau County Democratic chairman and a “crony of the governor,” Reese claims in his lawsuit.

The Reese case, which also includes arguments submitted by several candidates for the judicial nominating convention as well as County Legislature and other posts, is slated to be heard in Niagara County on April 4.

The number of required signatures was originally reduced this year in recognition of the compressed schedule after the state moved up its primaries from September to June.

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