New York’s crazily complicated ballots — and what they mean for Andrew Cuomo

Why are there so many parties. Source: The New York State Board of Elections
Why are there so many parties. Source: The New York State Board of Elections

With New York voters heading to the polls on Tuesday to decide key primaries for governor and lieutenant governor, we are re-upping this handy explainer on New York's odd balloting system -- and what it means for Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Even if New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo lost his Democratic primary on Tuesday, he'd still be on the ballot in November -- as a candidate for three other parties.

A loss seems unlikely, but it's not the extent of Cuomo's ballot issues. If insurgent candidate Tim Wu beats Cuomo's chosen running mate, former congresswoman Kathy Hochul, Cuomo could actually end up stealing votes in November from none other than himself.

Wu, the Columbia law professor who was recently endorsed by the New York Times, would be Cuomo's Democratic running mate if he wins in the September 9 primary. But several other minor parties in the state have already sided with the Cuomo-Hochul ticket.

Why might Cuomo wind up running against himself? Well, it has everything to do with New York's long and confusing ballots. Below, we explain.

Why are so many parties allowed on the ballot in New York?

The practice of allowing candidates to appear multiple times on the same ballot is know as "electoral fusion," or "cross-endorsing." It was far more widespread in the 19th century, and minor parties had a moment. In contrast to today, where voters are worried that voting on a third-party line means throwing their vote away, people could choose a winner as AND register their discontent with the major party whose support that candidate relied upon.

But the major parties, who took turns being disadvantaged by faction conglomerates working against them, soon began to outlaw them. Now, fusion voting is only allowed in seven states: Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Mississippi, New York, Oregon, South Carolina and Vermont.

In 1911, it looked like fusion voting might be on the way out in New York, too. Tammany Hall, a Democratic political machine that had major influence in the state, had helped pass the Wagner-Levy election law. The legislation sought to prohibit candidates from appearing under multiple party lines. At this point in New York history, fusion voting was used mainly to counteract the power of Tammany Hall.

But New York Court of Appeals struck down the law. Republican Otto T. Bannard told the New York Times at the time, "I am greatly pleased with the decision. Whether it was constitutional or not, it would be an outrage to deprive citizens of the right to vote for candidates they wanted in the way they wanted. ... Things look bright for fusion."

Did people understand fusion tickets back then?

The confusion over fusion tickets isn't any newer than the concept's existence. In January 1918, the New York Times ran a more-than-condescending series of explainers called "The Woman Voter," which mansplained politics to the newly enfranchised female population. Many readers loved the column (although several women wrote letters aghast at many of the insinuations) and asked if it would be republished in book form. Apparently, men liked explainers too -- "the letters we have received from men show that they, no less than women, have found it useful and helpful."

The Jan. 17 column focused on fusion voting, much like the explainer you're currently reading.

Source: The New York Times
Source: The New York Times

Has anything changed with fusion voting since then?

New York made one big change to fusion voting in the Wilson Pakula Act of 1947. If candidates want to get on the ballot using a minor-party line without changing affiliation, they have to get approval from party leaders -- instead of through gathered signatures. At the time, communist and socialist candidates had been able to become candidates for parties whose leaders didn't want them after winning support from voters. 

So in 2009, when independent Mayor Michael Bloomberg sought to run for re-election as a Republican in New York City, he needed to get support from the party first.

Putting power back into the hands of party leaders also introduced corruption to a practice that gained popularity as a tool to fight political machines. Democratic state Sen. Malcolm A. Smith was accused of trying to bribe himself onto the Republican mayoral ticket in 2013. After the scandal, Cuomo proposed legislation that would invalidate the Wilson Pakula Act, but the act still stands, and Cuomo is likely to end up all over the ballot this November -- whether on one ticket or in many permutations of himself.

What are the big minor parties in New York -- and when have they made a difference?


New York Governor Andrew Cuomo talks with reporters after a news conference in New York, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014.  (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

The parties New Yorkers will see on the ballot this November are the ones that managed to get more than 50,000 votes in the 2010 gubernatorial election -- or new ones that have gathered at least 15,000 signatures since then. Here's a quick rundown of some of the big ones -- and what role they have played in recent elections in the state.

The Conservative Party

Right under the Democratic and Republican Party on New York state ballots, you'll find the Conservative Party. The party was founded in 1962 because many Republicans thought the GOP was getting too liberal in the state. Although they have a smaller membership than the Independence Party (more on that later), they managed to win more votes than all other minor parties during the 2010 gubernatorial race -- hence their status on Line C.

The Party received national attention in 2009, when Conservative congressional candidate Doug Hoffman siphoned away votes from moderate/liberal Republican Dede Scozzafava in a special election in the 23rd district. In the swing district, Scozzafava was also attracting voters who might have otherwise voted for the Democratic candidate, Bill Owens. Scozzafava ended up dropping out shortly before the election, and endorsed her Democratic opponent instead of the tea-party-aligned Hoffman. Owens won and became the first Democrat to serve the district for over a century.

Further back, James Buckley -- the older brother of noted (lower-case) conservative thinker William Buckley -- served one term in the U.S. Senate after winning as the Conservative Party candidate in 1970.

The Independence Party

The Independence Party of New York is the largest minority party in the state. They have very confused people to thank. In 2012, the New York Daily News did a piece on the many people who were unaffiliated in spirit, if party members on paper. The tabloid talked to 169 people who had mistakenly registered for the Independence Party, thinking that they had chosen to be an Independent on the voter registration form. Plenty of these voters also voted a Independence Party line on Election Day, thinking they were choosing candidates with no party affiliation.

This year, Cuomo received the endorsement of the Independence Party. In 2010, he received more than 146,000 votes from people who chose to elect Independence Party candidate Cuomo. Many Democrats urged that the governor decline the nomination -- one Democratic official told the New York Post that the confusing party was a "political cesspool.’’ The New York Times editorial board also argued that Cuomo should say no. "New York’s Independence Party survives on confusion."

The Working Families Party

WFP is a progressive, labor-loving minor party founded in 1998 that has become increasingly effective in recent New York elections; just look at how well their mayoral candidate did last year. It looked like WFP would support Zephyr Teachout -- a law professor who is challenging Cuomo in the Democratic primary -- but they ended up endorsing the frontrunner after Cuomo himself endorsed some of the progressive party's platform.

The Liberal Party used to be the big left-leaning minor party in New York, and cross-endorsed many winners. However, it lost support as people began to defect to the Working Families Party.

Green Party

The lefty Green Party might be more nationally familiar than some of these other parties, but it doesn't have much sway in New York. It only barely made the 50,000 vote cut-off in 2010 to automatically end up on this year's ballot.

One reason why the Green Party doesn't have much support? It doesn't play with fusion tickets in the same way as other minor parties in the state. While the Working Families, Conservative and Independence parties used to field their own candidates far more often a few decades ago, they've realized that pressuring existing (and potentially more powerful) candidates has been far more useful in ensuring their continued existence.

Howie Hawkins, a UPS worker who cleared 50,000 votes as the Green nominee in the 2010 governor's race, is trying again this year.

Originally posted on Thursday.

Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.
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