Minor parties played a limited role in 2021 Erie County elections

New York State is among the few states that allow fusion voting, the process where a candidate for public office can appear on more than one political party line on an election ballot.  The strategy is that having more than one line increases the possibilities of a successful election.

One frequently cited legend related to the benefits of fusion voting is the fact that no Republican in the past fifty years has been elected to statewide office without also having the endorsement of the Conservative Party.  The thing about legends is that they aren’t always all they are cracked up to be.

Over the years there have been many minor party lines that do not current exist as officially recognized, ballot line guaranteed parties, including Liberals; Right-to-Life; Independence; Libertarian; Green.  Recent changes in state laws have raised the thresholds to official status, in effect requiring re-certification every two years following elections for president and governor. 

Presidential or gubernatorial candidates on a party line are required to receive a minimum of 130,000 votes or at least two percent of the total vote for president or governor to qualify the party.  Former or newly creating parties are required to circulate petitions for their presidential or gubernatorial candidate and if they do so and meet the vote thresholds they can get the official line for the next two years.

The Republicans for decades have mostly been attached at the hip with the Conservative Party.  Democrats over the past 25 years or so tend to favor the Working Families line, but this has often been a love/hate relationship.

It is sometimes suggested that the minor parties are the tail wagging the dog.  Both current minor parties, the Conservatives and Working Families, can often be very demanding of candidates who seek their lines, wanting on occasion something approaching policy purity; sometimes potential patronage is an issue.  Policy purity often points to political positions on the far extremes of the political spectrum.

Based on some political success, primarily in New York City, the Working Families folks have been pretty aggressive in promoting progressive/democratic socialist programs throughout the state.  The thing is, public support for such programs is not widely dispersed throughout the state.  The party’s platform and the questionnaire they require prospective candidates to complete can and has sometimes become a political drag on candidates on the line concerning an issue that has no real relevance to the office being sought.

We saw examples of such problems among some Democrats running for local office this year who got labelled as supporting such socialist policies as “defunding the police.”  The matter undoubtedly cost votes to some Democrats.

So the question arises, how much value is there in a minor party endorsement for local office?  The answer in Erie County in 2021 is, not too much.

The two major races on the ballot, aside from mayor of Buffalo, where just one party line was on the ballot (Democratic, held by India Walton), were sheriff and county comptroller.  In neither case was a minor party line determinant in the winning candidates’ campaigns.

Sheriff-elect John Garcia eked out a 2,588 vote victory over Democrat Kim Beaty.  The Conservative candidate, Karen Healy-Case, lost to Garcia in the Republican primary.  The Working Families Party did not have a candidate in the race.  Garcia’s margin of victory was created by a pop-up party, “Back the Blue,” created this year.

In the campaign for comptroller Democratic winner Kevin Hardwick had the Working Families line, but his total vote on the Democratic line exceeded Republican Lynne Dixon’s total combined votes on the Republican and Conservative lines, making the Working Families line a non-factor in the election results.

A previous post reported that in Erie County in 2021 just 60 of the 146 public offices on the ballot throughout Erie County had contested (Democrat versus Republican) elections.  The non-contested elections included judgeships, seats on the County Legislature, and dozens of city and town councilmembers, supervisors, and highway superintendents. Candidates in non-contested races for offices such as judgeships and local offices often have minor party lines in addition to their Democratic or Republican spot on the ballot, but the minor party lines have no impact on the results.

After the election I took a look at how contested down-ballot local races fared where there were endorsements of candidates by the Conservative and Working Families parties.  The conclusion is that at least in Erie County in 2021 the majority of candidates running in contested elections (having both Republican and Democratic candidates) saw no winning vote margin value in having a minor party line.  That was the case in 30 local elections. 

Where either the Conservative or Working Families lines vote totals were a factor in a candidate’s successful election, the results show that in just six elections did the Conservative Party line prove decisive.  In six elections the Working Families line provided the winning margin.  Five candidates did not have enough Democratic or Republican votes to win, but they had both the Conservative and Working Families lines, meaning that no serious conclusion about election success can be officially attributed to one or the other party line.  So at least in Erie County in 2021 that tail wagging the dog was mostly useless.

Going forward Democrats are likely to be somewhat cautious about accepting the Working Families line given the party’s doctrinaire positions on some issues that can scare away rather than attract additional voters.  The whole Democratic/Working Families drama will be played out on a larger stage in 2022 as those parties sort out their candidates for governor and attorney general.

In politics you make strategic decisions about the values you support and the assistance you seek in a campaign.  Things are getting harder and the stakes are high because of the raised political sensitivities that currently exist in this country.  That’s politics in the 21st century.

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