Change law to put candidates back on ballot

May 6, 2012 

THE STATE Supreme Court had no choice but to kick nearly 200 major-party candidates off the ballot after they failed to turn in economic-disclosure reports by the election filing deadline. Candidates’ names can’t appear on the ballot if they don’t file the proper paperwork by the March 30 deadline, and for two decades, the legally required paperwork has included a report that details potential conflicts of interest.

But that must not be the end of the conversation.

Although many candidates didn’t file those reports until days or even weeks after the filing period ended, many others filed them online with the State Ethics Commission well before the deadline. What they didn’t do was include a copy of that filing with the paperwork they turned in to county party officials, as the state law that predates the online filing clearly requires them to do.

That seems like a silly technical distinction, but the law is the law, and so under normal circumstances, we would say that the candidates are out of luck because they should have known and followed the law. The problem is that some candidates were told by the party officials with whom they were required to file for office that their online disclosure filings fulfilled the requirement. These weren’t just rouge party officials: The State Election Commission told them that was the law.

That is to say, some candidates failed to comply with the law, and got kicked off the ballot, because they relied on the directions of the people that state law designated to facilitate their filing.

This is the definition of unfair and unjust. It is unfair and unjust to the candidates. It is unfair and unjust to the voters, who have been stripped of choices because candidates did what state officials told them to do. Beyond fairness, there is a significant practical problem: There are now many offices for which there are no major-party candidates. All because state officials misinterpreted the law and gave out incorrect information.

The Legislature has to fix this problem.

That won’t be easy, but it must be done. And with the primaries just five weeks away, it must be done immediately. It would be difficult to keep the elections on schedule even if every member of the Legislature agreed to a solution. That won’t happen, so part of the solution needs to be delaying the primaries, which we shouldn’t hold until August to begin with.

The most appropriate solution would be to pass a law that says that candidates who filed their reports with the Ethics Commission by the election filing deadline are in fact qualified. That would protect the candidates who acted in good faith to do what state officials told them to do, without providing an unmerited second chance to candidates who did not file their reports until this month.

If election-law experts make a compelling case that such a retroactive solution would raise constitutional problems, then the Legislature will have to come up with another solution. But however it does so, and no matter how difficult it is, the Legislature has an obligation to solve this problem.

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