Gotham Gazette Fri, 28 Feb 2020 03:31:27 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) From the 'Third Party' Front Lines, How to Address Fusion Voting, Party Qualifications, and New York Democracy five hawkins peace

Howie Hawkins, the author (photo: Green Party)

“The Democrats’ Secret Plan to Kill Third Parties in New York,” as reported by The New York Times (Oct. 29), brings to mind how the Democratic Party establishment manipulated the 2016 primary process to favor the corporate candidate, Hillary Clinton, over her progressive challenger, Bernie Sanders.

Now the New York Democratic Party establishment, led by the Governor Andrew Cuomo-appointed chair of that party, Jay Jacobs, proposes to silence bothersome third parties by increasing by five times (from 50,000 to 250,000) the number of votes needed by a party’s gubernatorial ticket to qualify the party for the ballot.

It is no secret that Cuomo, Jacobs, and other establishment Democrats are irritated by public criticisms and primary challenges from the Working Families Party, which functions as a progressive faction of the Democratic Party. The WFP uses its ballot line as political leverage in the Democratic Party by threatening and sometimes mounting primary challenges to establishment Democrats, although it almost always runs the Democratic primary winner on its ballot line in the general election.

A much bigger issue is at stake here than this internal Democratic squabble: the people’s right to have the full diversity of their voices and choices participating in elections. Election law reforms should promote multi-party democracy, not cement in place the two-party system of corporate rule where both major parties are financed by wealthy special interests.

As the Green Party candidate for governor three times between between 2010 and 2018, I came in third each time among five to seven candidates. I received between 60,000 and 184,000 votes, the latter total accounting for 4.8 percent of the total vote. Our vote was always above the longstanding 50,000 vote standard but well below the 250,000 votes that Jacobs proposes. Jacobs is targeting the Green Party’s very right to participate in elections.

Jacobs justifies his proposal by saying New York needs to eliminate the corruption of “sham” parties that trade their ballot line for political favors. The Green Party is by no definition a “sham” party. The Green Party runs its own candidates against both establishment parties. It doesn’t accept donations from corporate interests. It doesn’t trade its ballot nominations for favors from the major parties. It is not a faction of the Democratic Party, like the WFP, nor a faction of the Republican Party, like the Conservative Party. It is not for sale to the highest bidder between the two major parties, like the misnamed Independence Party.

Jacobs also said he wants to reduce voter confusion. Here I agree. In the 2018 election I faced four Cuomos and three Molinaros on the ballot in this order:

Democratic Andrew Cuomo
Republican Marc Molinaro
Conservative Marc Molinaro
Green Howie Hawkins
Working Families Andrew Cuomo
Independence Andrew Cuomo
Women’s Equality Andrew Cuomo
Reform Marc Molinaro
SAM Stephanie Miner
Libertarian Larry Sharpe

The ballot should have had five ballot lines for the five candidates instead of ten ballot lines for each party making a nomination. New York’s “disaggregated fusion,” where every party nomination creates another ballot line, does indeed make for confusing ballots.

Future ballots should be simplified by putting all the party nominations a candidate receives under their name instead of giving them a separate ballot line for each party nomination. Most states that permit multiple party nominations use this “aggregated fusion” of one ballot line per candidate, including Delaware, Idaho, Mississippi, Oregon, and Vermont. Aggregated fusion was used by New York City on its ballots when it had ranked-choice voting for proportional representation on the City Council from 1936 to 1947.

Aggregated fusion ballots for New York would require a different standard for ballot qualification than the current 50,000 votes for the party’s gubernatorial ticket. New York is unique among the states in having a fixed number of votes for governor on a party’s separate ballot line as the sole standard for ballot qualification. Most other states use the more reasonable standards of a minimum party enrollment and/or a minimum percentage of the vote. In New York, we should allow parties to qualify for the ballot by either having a minimum number of party enrollees – 20,000 would be reasonable – or by receiving 1 percent of the vote for any statewide office.

It would also serve fair elections to have the candidates listed in random order, with a separate page for each office and random ordering of candidates on each page. Political scientists have found a ballot name-order effect of 1 percent to 10 percent, with the effect increasing on down-ballot, low-information contests. We don’t have to cram every office and ballot proposition onto one page. We don’t use lever machines to record votes anymore.

Ballot access in the United States is more difficult than almost every other electoral democracy in the world. To qualify independent candidates for the ballot for national legislatures, it takes two signatures in New Zealand, 10 signatures in the UK and India, 50 signatures in Australia, 100 signatures in Canada, and 200 signatures in Germany. In New York, it takes 3,500 signatures for independents to get on the ballot for Congress. Many states’ signature requirements for independent congressional candidates are more restrictive. Illinois, for example, requires 5 percent of the district total vote in the previous election, which comes to over 15,000 signatures.

Party suppression in America is part of the broader problem of voter suppression. Many voters stay home because they believe that the Democrats and the Republicans do not represent their concerns. Instead of restricting the voices and choices in our elections, we should expand them by instituting proportional representation in legislative bodies, as do most electoral democracies around the world.

Under proportional representation, each party gets representatives in the legislative party in proportion to the votes its candidates receive. No vote is wasted. Every vote counts toward getting your party its fair share of representation. When New York City had proportional representation, the number of parties represented in the City Council increased from two to between five and seven for each two-year cycle.

Third parties are attacked by major party partisans for “splitting the vote” in our single-member-district, winner-take-all system. Many voters feel compelled to vote for a “lesser evil” major party candidate instead of the third party candidate they really prefer in hopes of preventing a victory by the other major party candidate they fear more. Proportional representation ends the vote-splitting problem for legislative races. 

For single-seat executive offices, the answer to vote-splitting is ranked-choice voting. Voters rank their choices in order of preference. If no candidate receives a majority in the first count, the last place candidate is eliminated and their voters’ ballots are transferred to their second choices. That process continues until a candidate receives a majority of votes. Ireland, Malta, and Sri Lanka elect their presidents by ranked-choice voting. Maine will award its electoral votes in 2020 by ranked-choice voting. New York City voters just approved ranked-choice voting, but it will only apply to city-level offices and only in party primaries or special elections, not general elections.

Many prominent Democrats blame Green Party candidates like Ralph Nader in 2000 and Jill Stein in 2016 for their own losses to Republican presidential candidates, as Hillary Clinton did again last month. The last two Republican presidents, George W. Bush and Donald Trump, were first elected despite losing the popular vote. The Green Party didn’t do that. The Electoral College did. Instead of picking on the Greens, the Democrats should join the Greens in fighting to end this problem by replacing the archaic anti-democratic Electoral College with a national popular vote for president using ranked-choice voting.

The Democrats’ plan to eliminate third parties in New York is a plan to reduce democracy. Let’s support reforms that expand democracy, including fair ballot access, fair ballots, proportional representation, ranked-choice voting, and public campaign financing

Howie Hawkins, a three-time New York gubernatorial nominee of the Green Party, is currently a candidate for the Green nomination for president. On Twitter @HowieHawkins.

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From the 'Third Party' Front Lines, How to Address Fusion Voting, Party Qualifications, and New York Democracy Thu, 14 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
A Faulty Notion to Restrict Political Party Qualifications in New York gov cuomo participate

(photo: Philip Kamrass/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)

In April, the New York State budget was passed and signed into law. Buried within it was the creation of a commission tasked to write a new law on three aspects of the state’s election code: public campaign finance, “fusion” voting, and political party qualifications. Oddly, though it’s called the Public Campaign Finance Commission, most of the hearing testimony and press coverage has focused on fusion voting and party qualifications. This may be so because the commission’s informal leader, Democratic State Chair Jay Jacobs, has not disguised his desire to eliminate the minor or “third” parties in the state.

Jacobs has suggested raising the “threshold” number of votes required by a political party to achieve and maintain automatic ballot status. This is what “party qualifications” means. It answers an important question that all states must face: How does a group of citizens who form a political party get that party listed on the ballot?

Right now in New York, a party must receive 50,000 votes in each gubernatorial election under its own banner, or on its “ballot line,” as New Yorkers call it. Right now, based on the 2018 election, there are six qualified minor parties in the state: the two most prominent are the Conservative Party and the Working Families Party.

The 50,000 vote threshold is approximately 1% of the gubernatorial vote. Jacobs has proposed quintupling the vote requirement to 250,000, or roughly 5%, and extending to both gubernatorial and presidential races.

Because New York, unlike most states, does not permit minor parties to qualify in any other manner (such as a petition), this would effectively put the minor parties out of existence. It would instantly make New York among the most restrictive states in the nation in terms of ballot access for citizens who are neither Democrat nor Republican. And it is in stark contrast to the trend in other populous states. In the last 20 years, five of the most populous states — California, Texas, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania -- have moved in precisely the opposite direction, reducing barriers to minor party qualification, not raising them. 

More states use a 1% threshold than any other percentage test. The second most popular requirement is 2%. If New York adopted either of those, it would at least be within the realm of the defensible. But any standard greater than 2% not only smells bad, it will likely be ruled unconstitutional in the federal courts. There are dozens of cases holding that overly onerous party qualification rules are unconstitutional. Surely the lawyers on the commission understand that if “equal protection” means anything, it is that “party qualification” rules designed to punish or eliminate minor parties (and the voters who support them) will not stand.

The New York Commission, binding recommendations from which are due by December 1, should also consider the legal problem presented by a 250,000 vote threshold. It will likely be ruled unconstitutional in the federal courts. There are dozens of cases holding that overly onerous party qualification rules are unconstitutional. Surely the lawyers on the commission understand that if “equal protection” means anything, it is that “party qualification” rules designed to punish or eliminate minor parties (and the voters who support them) will not stand.

If the State Legislature wishes to ban fusion voting, it should do so in the proper way: pass a constitutional amendment, and refer it to the voters for approval. In the meantime, this unelected commission should leave the minor parties alone, and not touch the 50,000 vote threshold. The Legislature can consider it in the regular order of business.

The minor parties may annoy the major parties, but democracy is not about limiting ballot access only to those with whom you agree. The commission should resist joining the company of Alabama, Virginia, or the other states that have essentially made it impossible for “third parties” to qualify. Democracy belongs to everyone, not merely the two major parties.

Richard Winger publishes the Ballot Access News newsletter and website. On Twitter @ballot_access.

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A Faulty Notion to Restrict Political Party Qualifications in New York Tue, 12 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: The Future of Fusion Voting in New York fusion voting 600

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

September 25, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: The Future of Fusion Voting in New York

stan fritz wbaiA commission established by Governor Cuomo and the State Legislature is designing a system of public campaign financing for New York, and also considering whether to try to end the practice of fusion voting. Its binding recommendations are due by December 1, but everything is complicated. Stanley Fritz of Citizen Action New York, which is part of the Working Families Party, joined the show to discuss the governor's push to end fusion voting, why he and others from the WFP and beyond are fighting to save it, and what comes next.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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Max & Murphy Podcast: The Future of Fusion Voting in New York Wed, 25 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Calls to Keep Fusion Voting, Create Robust Public Matching System at First Hearing of State Campaign Finance Commission camp fin rally

(photo: Samar Khurshid)

The New York State Public Campaign Financing Commission heard many hours of testimony on Tuesday from experts, government reform advocates, elected officials, and others on creating a new statewide system of electoral campaign financing that would encourage small contributions and curb the effects of wealthy donors.

At what was its first public hearing of several planned for the next few weeks, the commission also explored questions around how fusion voting -- where more than one political party can nominate the same candidate for an elected office -- interplays with such a system and whether it could legally be eliminated under the commission’s mandate.

The nine-member commission was created earlier this year when the state Legislature and Governor Andrew Cuomo failed to come to an agreement over a public campaign financing system for state legislative and statewide races. Its recommendations are due by December 1 and become law unless the state Legislature holds a special session within three weeks thereafter to pass a different system. Members of the commission include two appointees each by the governor, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and one each for Republican minority leaders Senator John Flanagan and Assembly Member Brian Kolb. Cuomo, Stewart-Cousins and Heastie jointly appointed one member. The commission does not have a chair.

Tuesday saw two phases of testimony before the commission and a raucous rally outside Borough of Manhattan Community College in between as activists and elected officials called on the commission not to touch fusion voting, largely as a show of support for the Working Families Party, which often cross-endorses Democratic candidates.

During the first portion, 17 invited experts and advocates weighed in over the course of nearly six hours on the commission’s agenda, suggesting best practices for setting up a system that would overhaul how New York State conducts elections, fielding questions about how such a system should be structured or current models like that of New York City, and warning against doing away with fusion voting.

There were few areas of disagreement, at least among those who testified before the commission. The advocates generally agreed that a state system should be modelled after New York City’s program, which matches small dollar donations with public funds at a 6-to-1 or 8-to-1 ratio and includes fundraising and donor thresholds that candidates must meet to show grassroots support before accessing public funds. It also has low individual contribution limits, which the experts and advocates for good government said must be decreased across the board to encourage participation and reduce the appearance and reality of pay-to-play politics, particularly considering current state limits are among the highest in the nation.

They said the program must encourage viable candidates, avoid paying public funds to those running in noncompetitive races, and be timely and efficient to make it attractive to potential candidates. And they concurred that any campaign finance program should be administered and overseen by a new independent, nonpartisan agency separate from the state Board of Elections, which has a lacklustre history of enforcing campaign finance laws.

The ostensible goal of a public financing program is to limit the type of pay-to-play politics that has typified New York state elections and led to many scandals. Advocates noted that small donor matching programs not only encourage candidates to spend more time campaigning in communities but also boost diverse candidates. At the same time, they expand a candidate’s donor base along both racial and economic lines.

Richard Briffault, professor of legislation at Columbia Law School, said three aspects are necessary for a successful program: “That the program be attractive to viable candidates, that it promote electoral competition and that it operate at a reasonable cost.”

Some also said that additional reforms were necessary to ensure an effective program. Laura Ladd Bierman, executive director of the League of Women Voters of New York State, urged the commission to also reduce or eliminate contributions from lobbyists and contractors doing or seeking to do business with the state, to establish reasonable limits on party housekeeping accounts (which currently have no limits), and to add new disclosure requirements for “bundlers” who cobble together contributions from multiple donors for a single campaign.

“New York cannot build a functional campaign finance system on top of the broken enforcement structure and sky-high contribution limits” of the current system, she said.

But commission members seemed skeptical of many of the recommendations made before them. Some raised concerns about the potential costs of an expansive statewide program, whether it would encourage a glut of candidates seeking third party lines, whether a separate agency to oversee it was appropriate, whether New York City’s program is as effective as advocates say, and even whether it should be uniformly applied across the state.

Ayirini Fonseca-Sabune, New York City’s chief democracy officer, sought to defend the city’s program, noting that it has recently been strengthened through a charter revision process and subsequent legislation. She pointed out that in 2017, 92% of candidates on the ballot in the city’s election were participants in the program; and in the recent public advocate special election, the most common donation was $10, compared to $100 in the previous public advocate race.

“I think it’s not perfect,” she said of the city’s program, when pressed by Commissioner Mylan Denerstein on how it could be better. “There’s always room to improve but I think it is a leader in the system.”

A crucial question was whether participation in the program would mean higher costs to the taxpayer. The legislation creating the commission authorized up to $100 million each year to fund a public financing program, but Michael Malbin, former professor of political science at Rockefeller College, University at Albany, estimated it would only cost about $240 million for every four-year election cycle, or $60 million annually. He did say, however, that it would only work that way if the qualifying thresholds proposed by the governor were lowered. “It needs minor tweaks but not in my view a major overhaul,” he said.

Even before beginning its work, the commission came under criticism for having included fusion voting on its agenda. There are already two separate lawsuits filed against it, by the Working Families Party and the Conservative Party, who believe the governor is out to eliminate fusion voting, which allows them a level of clout in New York politics.

At Tuesday’s hearing, several experts cautioned the commission to avoid being distracted by the issue of fusion voting and to focus solely on campaign finance reform. Representatives from the WFP made an impassioned plea as well. “Disenfranchising anybody is a serious offense against democracy,” said Alex Rabb, an election lawyer, noting that fusion voting had repeatedly been upheld in New York top courts and eliminating it would be unconstitutional. He and others also argued that the legislation authorizing the commission made no mention of fusion voting.

Heather McGhee, a volunteer on the WFP national committee, said fusion voting is an “essential element of a healthy democracy” as third parties give voters a home when they are disenchanted with the two major political parties. Scrapping fusion voting would also limit voter choice, they argued.

Commissioner Jay Jacobs, chair of the state Democratic Party and appointed to the commission by Cuomo, seemed particularly intent on critiquing fusion voting and insisted, along with Commissioner Henry Berger, that it was within the commission’s authority to consider ending the system because it would affect how public financing would work. Jacobs said fusion voting already limits voter choice, since one candidate can run on multiple ballot lines, and that if public funds were made available, potential candidates in suburban and upstate counties may flood the ballot in attempting to run on third party lines. That, in turn, would be cost prohibitive and could blow past the $100 million funding cap, he speculated. “We would see a proliferation of primaries, opportunities to ballot, that would have a cost impact,” he said. “That’s why I think we have to look at it.”

Jacob’s criticism, to those who support fusion voting, is somewhat unfounded since public funds are given to individual candidates regardless of how many ballot lines they may pursue.

Republican appointees David Previte and Kimberly Galvin showed somewhat different opinions. Previte conjectured that ending fusion voting might actually lead to more candidates running, adding strain and cost to the system. And Galvin argued that it was not within the commission’s mandate.

Much like New York City’s public financing program is administered by the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Board, experts argued that any state program must similarly be managed by an agency with a strong culture of independence, ideally by virtue of its structure and composition. Evan Davis, manager of the Committee to Reform the State Constitution, proposed an agency comprised of members appointed by the judiciary, legislature, and executive, pointing out that the bipartisan Board of Elections does not have a reputation for independence.

Though Davis conceded that no agency could be perfectly independent, he said, “You have the ability to really move the ball forward.”

Commissioners Previte and Galvin took issue with that recommendation (as they did with many of the ideas put forward on Tuesday). Galvin, who is co-counsel and co-director of the state BOE’s campaign finance compliance unit, said Davis’ proposal would effectively set up another version of the BOE but without the institutional knowledge and experience to handle campaign finance matters.

Jacobs raised other concerns as well, about how limiting spending might encourage independent expenditure campaigns and whether candidates in districts with lower median incomes should get higher matching funds.

Experts pushed back against both arguments.

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, said a public matching funds program is “the only effective counter” against independent expenditures, particularly if it is bolstered with strong disclosure requirements. Rick Schaffer, chair of the New York City Campaign Finance Board, noted, “The uniform approach has worked and can work.” Establishing different matching ratios for different regions would be a complex system to manage, he said. Chisun Lee, senior counsel, and Joanna Zdanys, counsel, of the Brennan Center for Justice, said that could also raise legal issues.

The Brennan Center also released a new report on Monday that analyzed how small donor public financing affects constituent engagement, showing that candidates who participate in such a program receive more donations from donors in their district and raise a larger amount of funds from small donors.

Citizens Union's Rachel Bloom reiterated the demand for greater restrictions on party housekeeping accounts and on donations from those who do business with the state. "Keeping track of those doing business with government and limiting their contributions will not only help to lower the potential for 'pay-to-play', but will also allow the public, the press, and watchdogs to monitor possible conflicts of interests, and demand accountability from their elected officials when needed," she said, in her written testimony. 

Other experts and advocates who testified before the commission Tuesday included representatives from Reinvent Albany, the New York City Bar Association, and Fordham Law School professor Zephyr Teachout, who has in recent election cycles run for governor, congress, and attorney general.

Shortly after the expert testimony portion, Fair Elections for New York, a coalition of advocacy and community-based organizations that pushed for state public campaign financing, held a rally outside the hearing, calling for a strong public matching program and the preservation of fusion voting. Organizations such as Make the Road Action, Citizen Action, and New York Communities for Change were joined by several elected officials including Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, State Senators Robert Jackson and Jessica Ramos, and Assemblymembers Yuh-Line Niou, Robert Carroll, Diana Richardson, Harvey Epstein, and Linda Rosenthal.

Later, the microphone at the commission hearing was opened to members of the public. Dozens spoke, including city elected officials, state legislators, and people representing party organizations and advocacy groups. The testimonies were largely in favor of creating a strong public matching funds program modelled on the city’s and preserving fusion voting.

New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer was among the many elected officials who implored the commission to decouple the issues of public campaign financing and fusion voting. “The commission needs to examine how to expand publicly financed campaigns because that is a problem in need of a solution,” he said. “But the proper time and place for debating fusion voting is not before this commission, it's in the state legislature."

Public Advocate Williams criticized what he and many others viewed as a cynical attempt by Cuomo to harm the Working Families Party. “I really think it's an atrocious overreach to combine these two issue,” said Williams, who had the WFP’s support in his attempt to unseat Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul in the 2018 Democratic primary. “We are all watching right now, in real time, while a bully follows through with a threat, with nothing to do with the initial reason this commission was put together.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ethan Geringer-Sameth contributed to this story.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.

Note - this article has been updated. 

Calls to Keep Fusion Voting, Create Robust Public Matching System at First Hearing of State Campaign Finance Commission Tue, 10 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Is this the Election that Kills Fusion Voting in New York? govcuomo office pr

(photo via the Governor's office)

As New York lumbers out of its double primary season and rolls into a general election that’s being closely watched for its potential to give Democrats control of the state Senate and therefore the entire Legislature, another issue more central to the democratic process itself is being debated in pockets across the state.

Fusion voting, the practice of allowing one candidate to take multiple political party ballot lines in a single election and aggregate the votes received on each, is under the gun as both Democratic establishment figures and progressive activists are reaching the conclusion that the practice does more harm than good to New York’s democracy. Yet, this isn’t the first time in the Andrew Cuomo era fusion has faced a threat, much less the first time some in the state have looked to dismantle the practice, which continues to have its defenders.

New York put a dent in fusion voting in the mid-20th century with the Wilson-Pakula Law, passed largely in reaction to the victories of the suspected Communist-linked American Labor Party’s Representative Vito Marcantonio, who ran with multiple nominations including the Democratic and Republican lines on his way to victories in his East Harlem district. The law made it illegal for a candidate to run on the line of a party for which they weren’t registered, unless party leadership gave the candidate express permission through what is now commonly referred to as “a Wilson-Pakula.”

Smaller parties still exerted influence sometimes in New York though, as seen in John Lindsay’s successful re-election bid in 1969 on the Liberal Party line, undertaken after he lost the Republican primary. Decades later, Rudy Giuliani won his 1993 election thanks in part to the Liberal Party endorsement over incumbent Democratic Mayor David Dinkins. The party’s decision was largely seen as a power move by its leader, Ray Harding, and while it got Harding’s sons jobs in the new administration, the Giuliani endorsement also put into motion the eventual demise of the party, which lost its ballot line after endorsing Andrew Cuomo for governor in 2002 and failing to get 50,000 votes, and the rise of the Working Families Party, one of the most influential fusion parties in the state, along with the Conservative and Independence parties.

In the aftermath of the Liberal Party decision to endorse Giuliani, Dan Cantor, Bob Masters and Jon Kest convinced activism organization ACORN and several New York labor unions to join forces under the new Working Families Party umbrella and endorse Peter Vallone for governor in 1998. The endorsement, the beginning of the WFP’s blend of pragmatism and progressivism as American Prospect noted, worked as Vallone got just over the 50,000 votes on the WFP line the party needed to secure a statewide ballot line for at least the next four years. The party’s existence as a left flank with the Democrats allowed voters who wanted to express those left tendencies to have a voice in the Democratic firmament, and the WFP has managed to elect a City Council member, Letitia James, on their line and put their cross-endorsed stamp of approval on Mayor Bill de Blasio, Comptroller Scott Stringer, James -- now the Public Advocate and likely next Attorney General -- and members of the City Council Progressive Caucus. Candidates have regularly secured thousands more votes on the WFP line than there are registered members of the WFP eligible, meaning many Democrats choose to vote WFP to indicate their support for the party and its efforts to move Democrats left. By having a ballot line to offer, the WFP is able to influence Democratic candidates on its issues.

But the WFP’s victories on a citywide level haven’t been replicated on the statewide level, at least in terms of influencing progressive bête noire Andrew Cuomo. From the start of his successful gubernatorial runs, Cuomo has had a fraught relationship with the party, though he’s now on its ballot line for the third straight election.

Unlike the previous two elections in which he got the WFP line, Cuomo and the WFP’s mutual frustration with each other boiled over into the party nominating Cynthia Nixon in an effort to either shock the world and have their chosen leftist as the Democratic nominee or at least push Cuomo leftward, and Cuomo allegedly threatening progressive organizations that had been critical of him. The feud between the two sides cooled down enough after the very heated primary to allow the WFP to offer Cuomo its line in November, though -- in an indication of the messiness of fusion voting -- having to move Nixon off the line and into an Assembly election spot has led to other headaches.

The party had a well-publicized argument with Joe Crowley over his refusal to leave its ballot line after it endorsed him over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, since under New York State law candidates can only be removed from a ballot line if they transfer to another race, move out of their district, or die, a trio of options Crowley found unappealing. And while the WFP notched a series of victories in efforts to depose six the of eight members of the state Senate Independent Democratic Conference, some of those members are lingering or outright running in the general election on ballot on lines like those of the Independence Party and Women’s Equality Party.

While only Tony Avella has announced his intention to mount a vigorous general election campaign, Democratic Party bosses were rumored to have dangled judgeships to Senators Jeff Klein and Jesse Hamilton in order to persuade them to step away from the ballots, blatantly undemocratic horse-trading that also would have rewarded a state Senator, Klein, who was accused earlier this year of forcibly kissing a staffer. Those moves have not been made, and neither Klein or Hamilton has officially declared their general election intentions.

Perhaps sensing an opportunity to assert their power, the Democratic establishment across New York is making noise about ending fusion.

“Call it CON-fusion voting” Democratic consultant Bob Liff wrote in the Daily News in the wake of the Crowley situation, calling the practice transactional as opposed to reformist as it exists in New York. The practice only exists as an avenue for patronage, wrote Joshua Spivak of the Hugh Carey Institute for Government Reform, and third parties could actually grow without fusion.

Norman Green, chair of the Chautauqua County Democratic Party, wrote that the practice encourages corruption on a local level and a tail wags the dog situation on a statewide level, and the Erie County Democratic Town Chairs Association called for an end to Wilson-Pakula because of what they said resulted in overstuffed ballots featuring the same candidates on a series of different ballot lines.

State Senator Diane Savino, one of the original founders of the Working Families Party and Independent Democratic Conference, who in an ironic twist saw the WFP’s organizing prowess help unseat six of her IDC allies, told the Daily News that a Democratic Senate majority should explore including ending fusion voting as part of electoral reform efforts because the practice pulls candidates too far left or right.

A spokesperson for Governor Cuomo, who cites election reform as a top 2019 priority, did not respond to a question on whether ending fusion voting would be on his agenda if he wins reelection this year.

So is fusion on the way out?

“It's nothing new,” Mike Long, the chair of the New York State Conservative Party, told Gotham Gazette. “The Conservative Party has been in business since 1962, I've heard those cries over the 50-some-odd years. I hear those cries every governor's race for sure, especially when independent parties nominate someone other than those who think they should be crowned.”

As it typically does, the Conservative Party has cross-endorsed the Republican nominee for governor, Marc Molinaro. Like the WFP on the left, the Conservative Party is seen on the right as an important seal of approval and a force that pulls away from the middle.

Recent history is on Long’s side. Governor Cuomo floated the idea of nixing Wilson-Pakula in 2013 in the wake of a bribery scandal involving Malcolm Smith attempting to buy his way onto the Republican ballot line for the New York City mayoral election.

The effort ran into resistance from the smaller parties and reform groups like Common Cause New York and the Brennan Center for Justice and never went anywhere. And Bill Lipton, the Working Families Party’s political director in New York, says current anti-fusion sentiment is misplaced, especially given there are other reforms the state can make.

“We think fusion is a good idea that allows a minority viewpoint to have a say, and that gives voters who don’t find their views fully represented by either major party a political home,” he told Gotham Gazette. “The real issue is the bizarre set of laws that govern how candidates can get off the ballot, and those do need to be fixed,” Lipton said, referring to the die, move, or change races stipulations that allow someone to come off a ballot.

But this year’s frustration with the practice among progressives and good government advocates doesn’t stop at ballot law shenanigans, and extends to critiques about third parties run like local fiefdoms and prominent but ideology-free parties using fusion to gain prominence.

“This isn't about pushing third parties and their values,” said Rachel Barnhart, a journalist turned politician who’s run for several offices in Rochester and is currently working on Stephanie Miner’s independent bid for governor, about fusion voting. “It's about keeping a place at the table, it's about power-brokering. The Working Families Party has given perfunctory interviews and then just given the nod to the person they already know. These parties that exist to just extract money from powerful parties, and it handicaps people trying to defeat the establishment.”

Barnhart had especially harsh words for the WFP-endorsed Joe Morelle, the Rochester Assembly member and current Democratic nominee to replace the late Louise Slaughter in Congress, and his relationship with the Conservative Party of Monroe County, suggesting there was some kind of agreement between the candidate and party to make sure he often ran unopposed in his Assembly races, a frequent circumstance in those races. Democrats have a big registration advantage in Morelle’s district, and he has run unopposed for years, while state campaign finance records show donations given to the Conservative Party of Monroe County by both Morelle and various local Democratic Party organizations.

“It might have been a personal donation or whatever, I know he was friendly with the party leader up there, but I can’t speak to why he gave money to the Conservative Party,” Long said when asked about the donations. Told that Morelle ran unopposed, Long said, “I guess two and two makes four, maybe that’s why he donated some money.”

Using local parties as a kind of personal fiefdom is enough of a concern for even some allies of groups that rely on fusion.

“The baseline position among [good government groups] is fusion voting is a bad thing,” said Gus Christensen of the organization No IDC, which helped lead campaign efforts against the former IDC members. “Forgetting whether it benefits Democrats or Republicans in whatever election, it empowers some deeply corrupt and non-representative individuals who run these parties and small groups.”

Even fusion advocates see the occasional weakness in the system. “You can look at the Conservative Party and get a platform from us and know where we stand on all the issues,” Long said, when asked about the issue of minor parties and ideology. “You can look at the Working Families Party, our philosophical opposite, and see where they stand. No one knows where the Reform Party stands or what issues are important to them. It's pretty hard when a party endorses far left and in the next breath they support very conservative candidates. Certainly the Independence Party doesn't have a whole host of issues or an agenda they're trying to promote.”

New York’s Independence Party has come under criticism for years due to what critics say is a membership driven more by confusion from voters who think they’re registering merely as “independent” -- the party boasts over 436,612 active registered voters, outpacing all the other parties in New York except Democrats and Republicans. It has also been run by fringe political figures who’ve gotten the ear of mainstream candidates banking on the almost half a million people registered with the party, prominence that inspired a weeklong Daily News investigation into the party.

And while Christensen dismissed the chances of any of the former IDC members mounting a successful challenge on a third party line, he said when it comes to statewide offices, the WFP’s clout was neutralized by the existence of these other third parties.

“The pull of the Independence and Reform parties for the more right-wing members of our party, they pull people like Andrew Cuomo to the right in a way that's much more significant to the lives of New Yorkers because he can't stop hearing the siren song of the Independence and Reform endorsements. So I think there's an emerging view that it's a net-negative for progressive politics in New York State. That as much as there's a benefit from the WFP getting to use fusion voting, it’s more than offset by the damage done by the Independence Party and the Reform Party.”

It’s a weakness in the coalition-building attempts that has some people demanding more wholesale change. The WFP’s endorsement of Cuomo crossed from pragmatism to cynicism for some, including Green Party gubernatorial nominee Howie Hawkins, who issued a statement calling the WFP’s attempt the pull the Democratic Party left a “futile effort” and invited socialist and progressive voters to fill in the circle for him instead.

Barnhart is also challenging third parties to stand on their own. “New York State has kept this because keeping fusion voting means you're keeping both [major] parties strong. They don't want to have to deal with a strong independent candidate. You never know what could happen with a third party, and that's why New York State makes it so difficult to establish a ballot line and that's why they do fusion voting. Because these third parties just wind up being cogs of a party machine.”

It’s not as simple as that, though, according to Lipton, who said the realities of America’s electoral system are what make fusion necessary. “Our first-past-the-post electoral system doesn’t exist in most countries,” he said. “It’s arguably undemocratic, because even a party that gets 49 percent of the vote sees no representation. Fusion is good for democracy because it gives minority viewpoints a fair shot to participate in the electoral process.”

And that current reality of an electoral system that lays out the choice between being an unheard minority or a spoiler means that fusion as practiced by the Working Families and Conservative parties can also come in for praise by good government activists.

"I think that the Working Families Party and the Conservative Party are the best example of how fusion can work and is beneficial,” Alex Carmada, the senior policy adviser for Reinvent Albany, told Gotham Gazette. “They're true in their beliefs, they've existed for a long time, and they don't play the role of spoilers."

The relatively new Reform Party in New York has indeed endorsed a strange mix of candidates, including Molinaro and Democratic Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, but it does have several clearly outlined principles, mostly focused on government reform, like term limits for elected officials. The party, which is not formally affiliated with the national Reform Party by the larger group’s choice, was only created in 2014 by then-Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino, who launched the Stop Common Core Party, earned 50,000 votes on the line, then changed its name to Reform after the election. It has just 1802 active voters registered as Reform across the entire state, but it has a ballot line.

Something somewhat similar took place with Cuomo’s Women’s Equality Party, which he created in 2014 as an election gimmick and to hurt the WFP, even as he appeared on both ballot lines, along with the Democratic and Independence party lines. Cuomo earned just over 50,000 on the WEP line and will again appear on it this year, though he does not appear to have mentioned it yet this year on the campaign trail (he has loaned it some money, however, from his campaign account).

Carmada said it’s all life under fusion.

"The Stop Common Core Party is the equivalent of the WEP, an of-the-moment election issue that becomes a party and then its usefulness diminishes by the next election. Especially for Stop Common Core, the original message was not sustainable, but the system we have in New York encourages the creation of these of-the-moment parties," Carmada said.

If the end of fusion is near though, Long at least was copacetic about the future of the Conservative Party.

“Just because the insiders do away with fusion voting, doesn't mean the minor parties go out of business,” he said. “We’ll run our own candidates for governor, United States Senate. We did that in the beginning and we can do it again. The Conservative Party has done that off and on quite often.”

by Dave Colon, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated. 

Is this the Election that Kills Fusion Voting in New York? Thu, 11 Oct 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Fusion, Spoilers, and New York's Many Ballot Lines Cuomo voting 2017 primary

Gov. Cuomo voting (photo: Governor's Office)

New York’s unique fusion voting system is again in the spotlight this year, with renewed attention in the wake of Cynthia Nixon’s insurgent challenge for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination against Governor Andrew Cuomo, with the potential for vote-splitting on the left leading to a Republican victory in November. Cuomo and Nixon have each now been endorsed by a minor party with automatic general election ballot access, even as they vie for the big prize of the Democratic nomination.

Fusion voting, which allows candidates to combine the votes they receive from appearing on multiple ballot lines, is used in only eight states. But it takes its highest profile in New York, where numerous minor parties can cross-endorse rather than all having to run their own nominees, and still keep their own line on the ballot. Parties can secure a ballot line by having their gubernatorial nominee secure 50,000 votes statewide in the general election.

In New York, fusion voting has often led to individual candidates appearing on multiple ballot lines, whereby the minor parties do not threaten to play a spoiler role by costing a major party nominee victory by siphoning a determinative number of votes. For example, the Republican and Conservative parties often back the same candidates for various offices, and they appear set to do so again in this year’s gubernatorial race, behind Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro.

Governor Cuomo has appeared on several ballots lines in his runs for office over the years, including on the Democratic, Working Families, Women’s Equality, and Independence Party lines during his 2014 reelection. This year, however, the Working Families Party has backed Cynthia Nixon, who hopes to defeat Cuomo in the Democratic primary, but may appear on the general election ballot regardless and therefore risk pulling a decisive number of votes from Cuomo in the general election. Having earned the backing of the Independence Party this year, Cuomo could do similarly if Nixon has the Democratic Party nomination.

The Green Party, which typically fields its own candidates, could also play a role, pulling some voters on the left. This year it is again nominating for governor Howie Hawkins, who received over 184,000 votes in 2014. The Reform Party and Women’s Equality Party have yet to settle on a nominee.

The practice of fusion voting was common in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as a means for minor organizing arms to defeat powerful Tammany Hall machine candidates. These tickets sometimes worked: the second mayor of the consolidated City of New York, Seth Low, defeated Tammany Hall Democrat Edward Shepard on a fusion Republican-Citizens Union ticket in 1901.

The Wilson-Pakula Law of 1947, passed allegedly to disempower the American Labor Party, which was accused of having ties to communists, prevented candidates from running in the primaries for different parties; instead, a candidate must gain permission from the minor party that they’re not registered with in order to run on their ballot line. The alleged ties to communists caused ALP members to flock to the newer Liberal Party, which did not face the same allegations; the Democrats and Republicans did not want to grant their line to members of the ALP.

Cuomo criticized the Wilson-Pakula Law in 2013 after it came under scrutiny following Senator Malcolm Smith’s alleged attempt to bribe his way onto the Republican line. Some have called for repeal of the law, but so far efforts at repeal have gone nowhere in Albany.

The minor parties gain prominence unseen in most other states due to their ability to influence the major parties, and often act more like advocacy organizations than vast political organizing machines, though some have party infrastructure. According to Gerald Benjamin, a political scientist and the Director of SUNY New Paltz’s Benjamin Center, this has made New York’s politics more ideological and polarized.

“There are people who believe that periphery-oriented politics is desirable,” Benjamin said. “Pulling to the left and right is desirable. I think pulling to the center is desirable, having a two-party system that contains the conflict within that system is centrist.” He said that the system, in a way, is “mischievous” in empowering a minority of ideologically-inclined voters to have outsized influence on the process. As such, instead of allowing for more representation on the ballot, the third parties give their lines to major candidates and influence the platform and positions of the major parties and candidates.

Benjamin also says that the parties have become more prominent over time, though not to the degree they were in the 19th century.

“Their significance is higher than in the recent past,” Benjamin said, though he noted that the parties often have disparate periods of high significance, such as when James Buckley was elected to the U.S. Senate on only the Conservative line in 1970 or when John Lindsay won the New York City mayoralty on the Liberal line in 1969. “There have been peak moments. But systemically, and through politics at all levels, I think they’re at a pretty high level of significance relatively to history.”

Though there have been minor party successes for New York City mayor and U.S. senator, none has ever alone elected a governor of New York. The Democrats and Republicans have controlled the governorship exclusively since Whig Party member Myron Clark left office in 1856. The Whigs were one of the two major parties in the U.S. before being replaced by the Republicans in the 1850s.

The liberal Working Families Party (WFP), a coalition of left-wing activist groups and labor unions, is one of the more prominent minor parties in New York. The WFP typically cross-endorses the Democratic nominee and attempts to pull its nominees to the left. Cuomo and the WFP recently split dramatically after several activist groups involved with the party endorsed Nixon for governor, which led to unions leaving the party to side with Cuomo, reportedly at his behest. The unions have provided key funding to those activist groups, whose futures are at risk, along with the larger WFP, which is taking a significant gamble on Nixon.

Cuomo and the WFP have a rocky history. Cuomo initially declined the WFP endorsement in 2010 but eventually agreed to take the line, despite their platforms not being wholly aligned, especially on the issue of taxation. As such, the WFP won 50,000 votes and retained statewide ballot access.

The WFP had more leverage over Cuomo in 2014, when the party agreed to endorse him over liberal challenger Zephyr Teachout in exchange for a pledge to unify the Senate Democrats and support a more progressive platform. Cuomo did not follow through on the agreement, and also created the Women’s Equality Party, whose acronym, WEP, is very similar to WFP. His campaign urged supporters to vote for him on the Democratic or WEP lines, omitting the WFP from get-out-the-vote emails.

Having endorsed Nixon over Cuomo this year, some have raised the possibility of a vote split on the left that could land Molinaro in the Governor’s Mansion. WFP Political Director Bill Lipton, in response, declared that the party didn’t intend to act as a spoiler, telling the Associated Press that in the event Nixon loses the primary, she would “meet with our leaders, and we will make a decision that puts the interests of working families first.” However, Lipton does not think that will happen anyway.

“The more voters learn about Cynthia's progressive values, the more they like her,” Lipton told Gotham Gazette in an email. “Working Families feels confident Cynthia will win the Democratic Primary in September and go on to be both the Working Families and Democratic Nominees in November. The real problem is Andrew Cuomo being a spoiler. It looks like he will have the WEP and Independence Party lines - what happens when he loses the Democratic primary - is he willing to be a spoiler and elect a Republican Governor?”

The Independence Party has indeed endorsed Cuomo for the third election in a row, landing him on the November ballot no matter what. He is also likely to receive the nomination of the WEP, with the new party leader telling Politico that it’s “very likely the party will support Cuomo’s reelection bid.” Neither the Independence Party nor the WEP responded to requests for comment for this story.

Nixon has taken notice of Cuomo’s Independence Party endorsement. When asked about being a potential spoiler in Buffalo, she flipped the script, according to the Buffalo News.

“Why is nobody asking Andrew Cuomo that question, who is running on the Independence line and the Women’s Equality line he created,” Nixon said.

The Cuomo campaign did not respond to requests for comment from Gotham Gazette.

“Could he win without the Democrat line? Maybe,” Professor Benjamin said, while noting that the governor losing the Democratic primary would be an unlikely scenario and that a continued run would be based on a future calculation by Cuomo. The most recent poll, from Quinnipiac University, has Cuomo leading Nixon by 28 points. However, Benjamin conceded that Donald Trump winning the Republican nomination for president was also initially seen as exceedingly unlikely.

The Independence Party has had significant showings in both of Cuomo’s elections: in 2010, it received 146,576 votes statewide, while in 2014 it received 77,762, according to the State Board of Elections. In both instances, however, it was bested by the Working Families Party in vote count.

The Independence Party is, however, by far the largest third party in New York State based on enrollment. According to the State Board of Elections’ Annual Report for 2016, the most recent year available, the Independence Party had 501,738 registered voters in the state, outnumbering the second largest, the Conservative Party, by almost 340,000 voters. WFP had 50,039 registered voters. The Independence Party’s high membership, despite a relatively low electoral profile, is due in no small part to people mistakenly registering as Independence when meaning to register as unaffiliated, or “independent,” as shown by the Daily News in 2012.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has derided the Independence Party as a “bizarre and fractious political group” that “survives on confusion” of people thinking they’re registering as independent. The editorial board urged Cuomo to reject its endorsement in 2014 in order to cause the party to lose its automatic place on the ballot; Cuomo did not do that.

Unlike the WFP, the Independence Party has not committed to endorsing either the Democratic or Republican nominee in the event that Cuomo loses the primary; as such, Cuomo could theoretically continue his campaign as the Independence nominee if he loses the Democratic primary. However, like a potential Nixon campaign as the WFP nominee, a Cuomo Independence campaign against Nixon and Molinaro would allow the possibility of a vote split that would likely send Molinaro to Albany.

Cuomo’s stormy history with minor parties goes back a long way. In 2002, he was endorsed for governor by the Liberal Party, but dropped out of the race before the Democratic primary. He remained on the party’s line for the general election, where he failed to receive 50,000 votes and thus the Liberal Party lost its automatic place on the ballot. Historically a vehicle for candidates with the backing of labor unions, the party ceded that ground to the WFP and has not appeared on the gubernatorial ballot since Cuomo’s 2002 run.

Things are looking less tense on the Republican side. Molinaro appears to have consolidated support among the state’s GOP establishment; he recently won the endorsement of the Conservative Party, and his main competition for that and the Republican nomination, State Senator John DeFrancisco, recently pulled out of the race.

There’s also the Reform Party, which has a history of maverick actions and public stunts by its founder and leader, Curtis Sliwa. Last year, the party publicly urged Preet Bharara to run for either mayor or governor; Bharara, the former U.S. Attorney who was fired by President Donald Trump, has instead become a renowned podcaster.

Now, the party is apparently split on endorsing either Molinaro or former Erie County Executive Joel Giambra, who mounted a brief campaign for the Republican nomination before dropping out. According to the Daily News, the party has “punted” the decision to its May 19 party convention in Queens; if the party can’t make a decision there, it will hold a primary in September. In late April, it was reported that Sliwa himself was considering a run, saying he had “no other choice” if doctors give him a “clean bill of health.” Democrats and Republicans will hold their nominating conventions toward the end of May.

“There was a motion made to table consideration of the Governor's race until the state convention so that all of the state committee members could speak with the candidates,” Frank Morano, a spokesman for the Reform Party, told Gotham Gazette.

The party has its own outsized role in New York politics compared to its membership; according to the 2016 BOE report, the Reform Party has only 900 registered members in all of New York State.

by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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Fusion, Spoilers, and New York's Many Ballot Lines Thu, 03 May 2018 04:00:00 +0000