Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Continuing Saga of Kate Witek's Democratic Conversion

by Kyle Michaelis
Several weeks ago, I joined in welcoming incumbent state auditor Kate Witek into the fold of the Nebraska Democratic Party. At that time, there was some question whether Witek, who'd received the endorsement of the NDP in her surprise bid for reelection just two days prior, would appear on the ballot as a candidate by-petition or as the Democratic nominee. Secretary of State John Gale rejected the Democrats' initial claim that their convention had the authority to designate a candidate, leading to a court appeal as well as a back-up effort securing the 2,000 signatures necessary to petition Witek onto the ballot just in case.

Well, it turns out the Democratic Party was successful in both these regards - with Gale verifying that Witek had submitted enough signatures by petition just hours before his rejection of the NDPs nomination was overruled in court.

Now, on most levels, this is a clear victory for the Democratic Party. Whether it's a true victory for democracy, however, is more in question because this court decision clearly asserts greater power in the hands of political parties by reserving them ballot access even without running a candidate in the state's primary election.

In one sense, this should encourage greater choice on the general election ballot, but it could conceivably weaken the hands of partisan voters in having a say in their own nominees by giving candidates an alternative insider's route to the ballot without competing in a primary. That's a problem because of the potential within such a framework for abuse and a return to the machine-style/ party-boss politics of old. Direct primaries are supposed to be a check on that sort of consolidated power.

When Gale rejected Witek's nomination-by-convention, the Democratic Party accused him of playing partisan political games with his office. Seeing an opportunity, the Omaha World-Herald attacked the Democrats' for that hasty accusation in two seperate editorials, and I can't help agreeing with the OWH's assessment despite their own unfair overkill. There was a legitimate conflict in the law, one for which I must admit my own reading this spring resulted in the same conclusion to which Gale had come - that a political party only had the right to appoint a nominee when their candidate who'd won in the primary dropped-out of the race.

I have since been persuaded that I was wrong - that Gale and I were wrong - in light of a century-old court case that suggests conflicts in election law should be decided in favor of increased choice on the ballot. But, the statutes themselves were not so clear-cut, and, in this instance, I can no more call Gale a Republican hack than I can myself (makes you wonder).

None of which is to suggest that Gale hasn't politicized his office. Very serious questions persist about how several elections have been conducted under his watch, particularly in heavily minority areas. Moreover, the plans Gale announced for implementing satellite voting in Lancaster County this spring proved colored in favor of Republican turn-out, so much so that the entire test-run was scrapped.

Even in this race for State Auditor, there's some potential for partisan shenanigans on Gale's part in an alternative and, thus far, unreported regard. Green Party nominee Steve Larrick's petition to appear on the November ballot was initially rejected by Gale - on the grounds that the Green Party had not achieved recognition as a statewide political body - only to be approved in what seemed a complete reversal as soon as the specter of Witek's running as a Democrat appeared. It goes without saying that nothing helps Republicans at the expense of Democrats quite like throwing the Green Party in the picture - a lesson of which Republicans are well aware (i.e. George W. Bush's presidency and the current Pennsylvania Senate race debacle).

It seems worth noting that, with this latest court decision, not only the Republican and Democratic parties but also Nebraska's "third parties" should be able to nominate future candidates for state office in convention, assuming their election year performance allows them to maintain recngnition and validity in the eyes of the state. That right there is one long-term wrinkle of interest I expect few considered in this battle.

Looking back to the Democratic Party's success at getting Witek on the ballot, however, there is one further development worth mentioning. As reported in today's Lincoln Journal-Star, the NDP is making an unfortunate request that Witek be named twice on the election ballot - once by-petition and once as the Democratic nominee.

I fear this request - somewhat silly and impractical as it would open the door for any candidate to get their name on the ballot twice by submitting signatures on top of their party nomination - overshadowed the Democrat's two-pronged victory the day before and invited some measure of recrimination for their own political game-playing without regard for the public interest.

The Democratic Party may not be used to winning these sorts of battles, but they should understand that a victory can quickly become a loss in the more important (for their immediate purposes) court of public opinion, in which there's no way to dress-up a claim to two ballot spots as anything but an attempt to game the system, even if they can make a valid legal argument in its support.

Witek made the ballot. She will appear as the Democratic nominee. That's victory enough for now...let's not make it a loss by over-playing the Democratic Party's hand at expense to the voters' trust. Instead, they should focus on building the case for reelection, making the argument to Democratic and Republican voters alike for why they should stick with Witek in 2006.


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