The scandal of fusion voting in New York State

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Fusion Voting Booth

The Conservative Party of New York State – a parasitic pseudo-party that is part of the unique New York political ecosystem – yesterday called for the Reform Party of New York to join it in an an anti-Cuomo “coalition.” Instead of putting up their own candidate, the Conservatives want Reform to use “electoral fusion” (also known as “fusion voting”) to put forward whoever the Republicans nominate on the Reform line of the ballot.

Shockingly, this is normal practice in New York State. In fact, piggybacking on Republican candidates is something the Conservative Party of New York State have done for every Governor’s race since their founding in 1962. Yesterday’s appeal by the Conservatives for Reform not to field their own candidate is a prime example of how fusion voting in New York, rather than extending voter choice, actually restricts it.

It’s my party and I’ll exploit electoral laws if I want to

Unlike most states, New York has a long-established history of allowing multiple Third Parties automatic access to the ballot. And unlike other states, most third parties in New York stick to nominating Republicans or Democrats instead of their own candidates.

But why in the world would they do this?

This reluctance by parties to field their own candidates comes from some peculiar quirks of New York electoral law.

  1. “Fusion voting,” which allows parties to name candidates from other parties on their ballot line.
  2. Smaller parties can maintain their automatic ballot line as long as they get 50,000 votes every four years in the New York gubernatorial elections.

Smaller parties, especially during gubernatorial elections, are therefore incentivized to nominate major party candidates who they get 50,000 votes without much trouble on their party line.

This results in some very bizarre-looking ballots being printed up. For the 2014 gubernatorial election there were eleven parties on the ballot, but only five candidates. Four parties (the Democrats, the Working Families Party, the Women’s Equality Party, and the Independence Party) named Democratic incumbent Andrew Cuomo as their candidate. Three parties (the Republicans, the Conservative Party of New York State, and the Stop Common Core Party) named Republican challenger Rob Astorino as theirs.

Only the Libertarian Party and the Green Party (two normal Third Parties with national infrastructures) plus the a quixotic local outfit called the Sapient Party bothered to field candidates of their own.

Fusion Voting: why bother?

Conservative Party of New York State endorsing Trump
Conservative Party of New York chairman Michael Long and President Donald Trump. Photo: Michael Vadon, CC2.0

The fusion voting parties are keen to maintain their automatic ballot access as it lets them wield an enormous amount of influence at very little cost.

That influence stems not from a positive contribution to the political discourse, but by the threat they pose to the major parties if they withhold their favors. If the Conservative Party or Working Families Party choose to run their own candidates they will not have much chance of winning in a state-wide race, but they can siphon off enough votes from the Republican and Democratic candidates respectively to ensure they do not either.

This occurred most notably in the 2009 special election for the 23rd Congressional District. The Conservative Party decided that the official Republican nominee Dede Scozzafava was a “nice lady who is too liberal.” Instead of endorsing her they gave their ballot line to another Republican, Doug Hoffman. Scozzafava never recovered, and even withdrew from the race three days before the election. Democratic candidate Bill Owens, who had kept the support of the Working Families Party and their ballot line, was elected.

This ability to undermine major party candidates makes these relatively small parties, which are in reality just trumped-up major interest groups, extremely influential. To ensure a chance of winning, Republicans candidates regularly pay obeisance to Conservative Party chairman Michael Long. To get its endorsement, the Conservative Party will require Republican candidates to agree to its platform, which is frequently to the right of the average New York Republican. Now in position for nearly thirty years, Long clearly likes being a New York political power-broker, and thanks to fusion voting he will likely stay one as long as he wants to.

Fusion Voting – the cynical reality

Women's Equality PartyThe argument for fusion voting is that it allows voters to support small parties without “wasting” their vote on a candidate who cannot possibly win. But in reality this quirk is cynically exploited by both major parties and damages the democratic fabric of the New York electoral process.

Perhaps most damaging is the way is the pseudo-parties push the legitimate Third Parties with their own candidates farther down the ballot, further suppressing their vote tally. In the 2014 Governor’s race, ballots were so crowded that Libertarians were sometimes forced to share the very bottom line with another party. Cuomo, all by himself, enjoyed four lines towards the top. Astorio had three.

Another problem is some of the parties are increasingly bereft of any real purpose or program other than brokering the best deal they can in exchange for their ballot line. The Independence Party of New York (which has a complicated history and was at one point part of Ross Perot’s Reform Party) is the ultimate example of this. At a convention lasting a mere twenty minutes in an out-of-the-way Albany hotel, the Independence Party nominated the entire Democratic slate as their candidates in the 2010 election. Many Democratic leaders urged Cuomo to refuse the nomination, as the Republican Astorino had said he would, but in the end they all quietly accepted.

But the most cynical pseudo-party is undoubtedly the Women’s Equality Party, which was created by the (very much male) Andrew Cuomo just a few months before the 2014 election. The largely-on-paper party gave Cuomo an extra ballot line, and as a result made him less dependent on the ballot line owned by the ultra-progressive Working Families Party.

Thanks to Cuomo’s name on their line, the Women’s Equality Party scraped over the 50,000 vote threshold despite having no track record with voters or even any of their own candidates. Now with automatic ballot access, the lack of any other purpose for the party is clear from its online presence: the party’s website has not been updated since September 2015, and its last Twitter and Facebook updates were in June 2016 and June 2017 respectively. The party’s Twitter bio still says: “It’s unacceptable that in 2015 this debate over women’s equality still exists. Help us end it.” Some would say that it is unacceptable in 2018 to still be talking about what is unacceptable in 2015.

Resisting the rubber stamp parties

Yesterday’s remarks by Conservative Party of New York State Chairman Michael Long concerned his fears that Reform Party of New York chairman Curtis Sliwa would nominate former Erie County Executive Joel Giambra as their candidate for governor. Giambra

Curtis Sliwa
Reform Party of New York chairman Curtis Sliwa, photo Charles Kaiser, CC2.0

started his life as a Democrat, before changing to Republican. He is thought unlikely to receive the GOP nomination, but if he appears on the ballot as the Reform Party candidate that could hurt whoever does run with the official Republican and Conservative blessings.

So far, Sliwa has defied Long’s more cynical approach to Third Party politics. Speaking to the New York Daily News he said, “We’re not a rubber stamp for either party. We’re not doing what the heads of parties have done for a long time, which is basically make the decision for their membership. We’re looking for the best man or woman–period. And that will come out in the process.”

The “rubber stamp” parties may be facing extra pressure this year not just from the Reform Party, but also from resurgent Green and Libertarian candidates. The Green candidate from 2010, Howie Hawins, nearly polled 5%, beating all other Third Parties other than the Conservatives. And the Libertarian Party appears on the verge of nominating Larry Sharpe, possibly the most popular figure in the party nationwide. He started his campaign before virtually any other candidate, and came in second in fundraising at the first reporting figure (far, far ahead of all Conservative Party, errr.. Republican candidates).

Could this be the end of “fusion voting” politics as we know it in New York?

7 COMMENTS

  1. […] There is some confusion in the media about the party affiliation of Sam McCann and Aaron Merreighn. According to POLITICO McCann calls himself an “independent conservative,” whereas the Chicago Tribune and other Illinois media refer to McCann founding a new “Conservative Party” (although presumably not one with links to the long-established Conservative Party of New York State). […]

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