New York — What a great state for a party!

New York – What a Great State for a Party!

A political party, that is.

The Election Law of the State of New York provides that any organization that can petition its way on to a gubernatorial election ballot and receive at least 50,000 votes for its candidate for governor, is a party in New York State for the next four years. So now in 2015, fresh off last year’s election for governor, we have eight political parties in the state.

Being a party means that for at least this year as well as 2016, 2017 and 2018, candidates for federal, state or local offices in New York can chose to pursue the endorsement of one of more of the established parties and the support that that may bring to their candidacies.

Anyone wishing to register to vote in New York State, or for that matter to change their affiliation, can now choose from among the following (in the order in which they appear on the form and will as parties appear on the election ballots between this year and 2018):

  • Democratic
  • Republican
  • Conservative
  • Green
  • Working Families
  • Independence
  • Women’s Equality
  • Reform (nee Stop Common Core)
  • Other
  • No party

The order of the list is determined by the number of votes the party’s gubernatorial candidate received last November. The Reform Party was originally created by Republican Rob Astorino as the Stop Common Core Party. The leaders of that party, evidently associates of Astorino, seem to feel that “Reform” has broader appeal to voters than “Stop Common Core.”

While the Democratic and Republican parties have traditionally held on to the top two spots on the ballot, occasionally trading places, other established parties move around on the list and sometimes disappear. Up until about 30 years ago there was for many years a Liberal party. The Working Families party, in at least some respects, is sort of a successor to the Liberals. The Conservatives sprang up in the early 1960’s to challenge Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who was perceived by some as too liberal. The Green party has its roots in the environmental movement, but likely owes its current status as fourth party to serving as sort of a placeholder for anti-Cuomo Democratic voters following last year’s primary election.

The Independence party has it’s roots in Tom Golisano’s campaigns for governor. It’s enrollment and the number of votes it attracts to the line, it has often been suggested, is due to a certain degree to the confusion in some voters’ minds between an independent candidate (small “i”), and a candidate of the Independence party. To digress for a moment, when Democrat Richard Ottinger tried to create a “Conservation” party in his campaign for United States Senate against Conservative James Buckley in 1970, the courts prohibited Ottinger from using the name “Conservation.” Guess there are rules, and then there are rules.

Both the Women’s Equality and the Reform (Stop Common Core) parties have their roots in last year’s election, with Cuomo (Women’s Equality) and Astorino (Stop Common Core) carrying those banners. Both of those parties barely made it past the 50,000 threshold to qualify as a party. The organizers of those parties, to the extent they wish to function over the next four years, must now create party structures.

Party structure, of course, varies from party to party. The Democratic and Republican parties are well entrenched, fortified by the fact that the Election Law awards control of local and state boards of elections to the two parties receiving the largest shares of the votes in an election for governor. Both of these parties have headquarters, staffs, etc.

The “minor” parties, minor in the sense that they don’t hold one of the two top ballot spots, having varying arrangements for organization. Because minor party endorsements can be valuable to major party candidates, there are often efforts by Republicans and Democrats to take some indirect control of the minor parties. While local people generally control local parties, there are instances where the state central committees (that sounds sort of 1950’s-Russian-style, doesn’t it) control all endorsements, even local endorsements. The Erie County Board of Elections website lists the local names and contact information for Democratic, Republican, Conservative, Working Families and Green parties, but the “Local Major Party Headquarters” for the Independence lists Frank MacKay, Rocky Point, NY. The Women’s Equality and Reform parties are likely to operate like the Independence structure for the time being since there are few if any registered voters in the two newest parties at this time.

If the state Election Law required that a political party could only nominate a member of its own party for any offices in the state, none of this would matter too much. But in New York State we also have “Wilson-Pakula.” Wilson-Pakula is a law that allows a party to endorse someone who is enrolled with another party. Candidates often seek endorsements from multiple parties, regardless of the stated issue positions of the candidates and the parties. So we wind up with countless “fusion party” candidates.

It is quite often possible that a minor party will endorse a major party candidate who they truly believe in and whose own personal political beliefs match the party’s. It is quite often more possible that a minor party will endorse a major party candidate because of the possibility, as they say in baseball player trades, of “future considerations.”

A candidate for office who is endorsed by an established political party in the state stills needs to qualify for an election ballot by securing the appropriate number of valid signatures on an election petition (except for state-wide offices when a party designation provides automatic ballot position), but they are usually aided in that by the party structure. A candidate, endorsed by major or minor parties, can also attempt to secure a separate, usually one-time party line (create your own party name) by securing independent petition signatures of sufficient number. That is basically how the Women’s Equality and Stop Common Core parties recently came to be.

A candidate for state-wide office can petition their way on to the ballot with 15,000 valid signatures if they are seeking a party’s ballot line (with certain geographic distribution of signatures), or 15,000 valid signatures to seek an independent ballot position apart from the established parties (also with certain geographic distribution of signatures) . As all political junkies know, a candidate will want to get about twice the required number of valid signatures to protect him/herself from petition challenges.

For a state-wide office, therefore, there is not a lot of difference between the number of signatures a candidate needs on a petition and the number of votes a candidate for governor needs to secure the status of an established party for the next four years, provided that the candidate/party can receive at least 50,000 votes for governor.

Fusion-party candidacies and attempts to take over or influence to great degree the activities of the minor parties in New York State can and sometimes do lead to the denigration of the political system. “Deals” are a traditional part of the political process, but deals can also lead to the corroding of the political system. Political scandals have often flowed from such deals.

Reforms in the system could help. These would include:

  • Ending the Wilson-Pakula option of allowing a candidate to seek the endorsement of any party other than the one that a candidate belongs to.  Minor parties, if this change were to occur, might have a problem recruiting candidates of their own party to run for office.  Governor Cuomo in 2013 proposed ending Wilson-Pakula authorizations and replacing that with the opportunity to petition onto a party ballot.  The bill was not approved.
  • Raising the threshold for creating a party in the state to require a gubernatorial candidate to receive more than 50,000 votes on a party’s line.  The 50,000 vote threshold was probably developed decades ago when the state population and number of registered voters was much smaller than it is today.  Fifty thousand votes, state-wide, amounts to 0.42 percent of the total number of voters registered in the state as of November 1, 2014.  Raising the bar to one percent of registered voters would set the threshold at 118,065, which would have disqualified Women’s Equality and Stop Common Core from becoming parties for the next four years.  Raising the bar to two percent of the registered voters would set the threshold at 236,130.  That would also eliminate the Working Families, Independence and Green parties from party status in the state.

Would the voters miss any of the eliminated parties if the threshold was raised? Would the voters care if a candidate could only run on one party line? Of course not. But that is only important to extent that what is important to voters is really important. Who would dare think that? So in the interest of your health and well-being, please, please do not hold your breath waiting for these reforms to happen.

What We Know

According to the New York State and Erie County Board of Elections, here are the number of individuals enrolled with a political party in the state or county as of November 2014, and the statewide total votes for gubernatorial candidates in 2014:

Party                                     NYS Enrollment                 Erie County Enrollment

Democratic                                           5,839,259                               283,007

Republican                                           2,773,210                               150,252

Conservative                                          157,073                                  12,949

Green                                                       25,212                                    1,415

Working Families                                     48,678                                    2,955

Independence                                        481,612                                  27,872

Women’s Equality                                           Newly created

Stop Common Core                                        Newly created

Note: NYS numbers include both “Active” and “Inactive” Enrollees.

Votes for Candidates for Governor, November 2014

Cuomo (Democratic)                      1,811,672

Astorino (Republican)                     1,234,951

Astorino (Conservative)                    250,634

Hawkins (Green)                               184,419

Cuomo (Working Families)               126,244

Cuomo (Independence)                      77,762

Cuomo (Women’s Equality)                53,802

Astorino (Stop Common Core)           51,294

Minor Parties in Other States

An article on Wikipedia reports that only nine other states have minor parties that operate on a statewide basis: Alaska (1 party); Connecticut (1); Delaware (2); Hawaii (1); Michigan (1); Minnesota (3); Oregon (4); Rhode Island (1); Vermont (3). Forty-three states, including New York, have an affiliated chapter of the Green party. Six states have either an “Independent” or “Independence” party.

What We’re Heard

Some Working Families party representatives have recently approached some Conservative party representatives about working together on certain things. And the lamb will lie down with the lion.