While most of us in New York state were enjoying a rare sun-drenched weekend, the Working Families Party more or less guaranteed the re-election of Andrew Cuomo as governor of the Empire State. At its state convention, the WFP decided, with some reluctance, to give the governor its ballot line in November’s election. To understand how this virtually guarantees his re-election, we need to look at how New York’s ballot access law works.
America has a two-party system. New York state has a six-party system. Whoever wins the nomination of one or more of these parties is automatically on that party’s line on the ballot. The parties for the 2014 election are the Democrats and Republicans (obviously), as well as the Conservative Party (founded back in the 1960s because the state GOP was seen as too liberal by some), the Independence Party (founded in the 1990s and did best with Ross Perot as its presidential candidate, not to be confused with being an independent voter), the Greens and the Working Families Party (founded in the 1990s to be more social democratic than the Democrats).
These parties get automatic spots on the ballot because in the last gubernatorial election, they ran a candidate for governor and lieutenant governor, and those candidates got more than 50,000 votes statewide. The law says if you achieve that, your party gets automatic ballot access until the next gubernatorial election. And since the order of the parties on a ballot has been proved to matter, the party that got the most votes, gets the first line, the second most is listed second, and so on.
If your party doesn’t do that, or it if is new to the game, you have to circulate petitions and collect literally thousands of signatures. You need lots of volunteers or campaign staff (i.e., money) to collect them in the few weeks you have to do it. And once you have the petitions submitted, you need a good election lawyer to prevent other campaigns and parties from successfully challenging the validity of the petition. The Libertarian Party has been in every governor’s race since the 1990s, but it is always by petition.
It is also true that an established party that has an automatic line can lose that status by coming in with fewer than 50,000 votes. What is interesting here is that Cuomo killed the New York Liberal Party in 2002. He had the party’s nomination, withdrew from the race, and because the party didn’t have time to find a new candidate, Cuomo won about 12,000 votes. The Liberal Party ceased operations shortly after that.
But six parties doesn’t mean six candidates. Here’s where it gets fun. More than one party can nominate a candidate. So-called “fusion” candidates tend to do better than those with a single line. For example, Rudy Giuliani won as mayor of New York in 1994 as a Republican and a Liberal (yes, I know, and I can’t explain in under 1,000 words), while David Dinkins lost as a Democrat, and George Martin secured the Conservative and Right-to-Life lines.
The current parties with ballot lines tend to line up Republican/Conservative and probably Independence, against Democrat/WPF and Green. Sometimes Independence runs its own candidate, but ideologically, they are comfortable on the right.
New York state is largely Democratic by voter registration and actual votes cast in the last several decades. However, Republican George Pataki served as governor for three terms (1995-2006) in part (but not entirely) because the left coalition was divided.
This time around, Cuomo is considered the front runner against Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino. The Green Party has backed Howie Hawkins as its nominee, a graveyard-shift worker for UPS in Syracuse, N.Y. Last time, he got 59,906 votes as the Green candidate. Those are almost all likely to have gone to Cuomo had the Greens backed him.
So, the fact that the WFP has decided to give Cuomo their ballot line is significant because it prevents another avenue for protest votes. Quinnipiac released a poll on May 21, showing the effect a WFP candidate would have. Cuomo leads right now 58 to 28 percent over Astorino. With an unnamed progressive on the WFP line, that becomes a 37 to 24 percent lead with the WFP getting 22 percent. A 30-point lead is more or less insurmountable. A 13-point lead is still an uphill climb, but it’s not impossible to overcome it.
And who led the charge to get Cuomo the WFP line? Mayor Bill de Blasio. Thus far, the two have had their differences over things like universal pre-K and charter schools. Look for much of that to go away now. Cuomo owes de Blasio.
Jeff Myhre is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.