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New York Voters Face Sharply Reduced Choices in Future Elections

crowds gathered votes

Voting (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photo Office)

In April 2020, Governor Andrew Cuomo virtually forced the New York legislature to make severe changes to New York’s ballot access laws, by inserting those changes into a budget bill, which had to pass in order to avoid chaos. If those changes are not reversed, New York voters will invariably see only two candidates on their general election ballots in 2022 for almost all congressional and statewide races. In 2024, for president, chances are also high that they will see only the Democratic and Republican nominees on the November ballot.

One change increased the petition for statewide office from 15,000 to 45,000 signatures required to appear on the ballot. However, for 2020 only, Governor Andrew Cuomo reduced it to 30,000 signatures by executive order due to the pandemic. Even with that reduction, not one statewide independent petition succeeded in 2020. In the entire history of New York’s government-printed ballots, which originated in 1890, this was only the second time when not one statewide petition succeeded in a presidential or gubernatorial election year. The only other instance was in 1956, when the only two groups that tried, the Socialist Labor Party and the Socialist Workers Party, had their statewide petitions challenged and rejected.

In the spring of 1992, when Ross Perot was starting to run for president as an independent, the New York petition requirement was 20,000 signatures. Although Perot was very popular in the national polls, and was rapidly getting on the ballot in all the other states, New York legislators were concerned that Perot would not be able to get on the ballot in New York. So they eased the petition requirement, to 15,000 signatures. The bills that made that liberalizing change, S7922 and A11505, were obviously motivated to avoid the embarrassment of Perot getting on the ballot in all states except New York, because the effective date for the reduction in signatures for other statewide office was set in 1993, but the reduction for president went into effect the day the bill was signed. Governor Mario Cuomo signed the bill on May 8, 1992. Perot did then get on the ballot in New York and all other states.

If the 1992 session of the legislature had a plausible fear that 20,000 signatures was too difficult for someone as popular as Ross Perot, it makes no sense that Governor Andrew Cuomo chose 45,000 for future statewide petitions, unless he desired to block all future statewide independent petitions.

The severity of the statewide petition increase was not obvious in 2020, because New York already had eight ballot-qualified parties. The Libertarian, Green, and Independence Parties were each free to nominate someone for president without a petition, and did so. Therefore, New York voters had five candidates for president on the general election ballots: Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Jo Jorgensen (Libertarian), Howie Hawkins (Green), and Brock Pierce (independent). The SAM Party, which was also on the ballot, chose not to have a presidential nominee. The Working Families Party listed Biden; the Conservative Party listed Trump.

But, the 2020 ballot access change had another provision, increasing the requirements for a group to meet the definition of a ballot-qualified political party. It increased that definition so severely that four of New York’s parties are no longer automatically on the ballot. If they want to run in 2022 and future years, they will first need to get 45,000 valid signatures for their top-of-ticket nominee. To put the difficulty of getting 45,000 signatures in perspective, note that in 2020, not one independent candidate, and not one minor party, successfully completed any petition anywhere in the nation that exceeded 5,000 signatures, for any office. Granted, petitioning in 2020 was especially difficult due to the covid health crisis.

Defenders of the new definition of “political party,” a group that polled at least 2% for the office at the top of the ticket every two years, in gubernatorial and presidential elections, argue that the Working Families and Conservative Parties meet the new definition, so that New Yorkers will still have four parties to choose from. But in New York, the Working Families Party has never, in its 23-year history, nominated anyone for statewide office who was not the Democratic nominee. For the U.S. House, the Working Families Party also almost never runs anyone other than the Democratic nominee. In 2020 it had only one nominee for U.S. House who was not also the Democratic nominee, and that was an unintended accident, and if the Working Families Party had won in court, even that one nominee would have been replaced by the Democratic nominee.

The Conservative Party generally nominates the Republican nominee. For president, it has never nominated anyone who was not also the Republican nominee. For other statewide offices, it has not run someone who was not the Republican nominee since the U.S. Senate race in 2004. For the U.S. House, it almost always nominates the Republican nominee. In 2020, there were only two districts in which it ran someone against the Republican nominees. Therefore, the presence on the ballot of the Conservative and Working Families Parties barely adds to the list of candidates.

In 2020, in the U.S. House races, 17 of New York’s 27 races had at least three candidates on the ballot, but that was almost entirely due to the fact that the Libertarian, Green, and SAM Parties had their own nominees. Without those parties on the ballot in future elections, virtually every U.S. House race, and the vast majority of state legislative races, will have only the Democratic and Republican nominees on the ballot.

New York has been one of the states with the most third party and independent choices on the ballot for its entire history, and New Yorkers have been the voters most likely to elect such a candidate to Congress, compared to the voters of the other states. Individuals who were not Democratic or Republican nominees were elected to Congress from New York in 1947, 1948, 1949, and 1970. In the last 100 years, no other state can match that level of political diversity in congressional elections. If New York wants to keep its storied political diversity, the ballot access changes of 2020 must be reversed.

Richard Winger is the publisher of Ballot Access News.

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