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If the 2016 election was good for anything, it reminded us that controlled markets produce garbage products. In 2016, we saw the two most disliked presidential candidates in American history go head to head. That might explain why nearly nine million people voted for third-party candidates and another 5 million (or more) stayed home.
I call it a “controlled market” because third parties are intentionally excluded. There are several structural barriers inherent to our system of government, but two additional barriers are put in place by major parties to make sure third parties don’t muck things up for them: debates and ballot access.
As to the latter, ballot access, I’ll note that Gary Johnson was the only third-party candidate who was on the ballot in all 50 states. Jill Stein was allowed to be a choice in only 44 states. Evan McMullin only made the ballot in 11 states. (As to the former, the Commission on Presidential Debates is actually a wholly owned subsidiary of the two major parties. Before 1988, presidential debates were conducted by the League of Women Voters. The CPD is a cartel that excludes additional market entrants.)
Much is made about how minor parties, including the Libertarian Party, only act as spoilers and never win elections, and so forth. Indeed, our single-member district system of elections benefits a two-party system by its nature. So, third parties work from a natural disadvantage, but the two major parties exacerbate that by conspiring together to limit ballot access to minor party candidates.
Ballot access in New York, which I’m somewhat familiar with gives us an interesting look into how the deck gets stacked against minor party candidates. We have a gubernatorial election this year in helping to get one of the candidates, Larry Sharpe, on the ballot. Specifically, I was the New York Libertarian Party’s statewide petition coordinator*. During a six week period this summer, thousands of pages of petitions came to my home, and so I learned all about the horse [expletive] process that passes for functioning democracy in my state.
There will be five candidates on the ballot next month: Andrew Cuomo, Republican Marc Molinaro, perennial Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins, Stephanie Miner, and the above mentioned Larry Sharpe. (Cynthia Nixon, who had been endorsed by the Working Families Party has withdrawn and will not appear on the ballot.)
To understand the New York system, there are two important concepts I need to explain, fusion voting and ballot-recognized party status.
Fusion voting is only practiced in eight states. It’s a system where a candidate can be endorsed by multiple parties. So, Andrew Cuomo this year will not only be on the ballot line of the Democratic Party but a few other parties as well.
This system lets minor parties gain notoriety by endorsing major party candidates and major party candidates seek out minor party endorsements. It also means that sometimes well established major party candidates create minor parties as cut-outs to endorse them. A real-life example is the Women’s Equality Party of New York, which was created by Andrew Cuomo in 2014 specifically for that purpose. (And no, this isn’t crazy Fred’s interpretation of things. Go read the Wikipedia page.)
The second concept is Ballot-Recognized Parties. There are two types of political parties in New York, official, ballot-recognized parties, and unofficial parties. Currently, there are eight “official” political parties in New York:
- The Democratic Party
- The Republican Party
- The Green Party
- The Reform Party (This is unrelated to the old Perot Reform Party. Four years ago it was the Stop Common Core Party. They generally endorse Republicans.)
- The Independence Party (This party used to be affiliated with the old Perot Reform Party. They generally endorse Republicans.)
- The Conservative Party (They usually endorse Republican candidates, except in Albany County where it’s controlled by Democrats.)
- The Working Families Party (This party is a coalition of labor organizations that generally endorse Democrats.)
- Women’s Equality Party (This is the above-mentioned Cuomo front organization.)
You’ll notice a party that’s not on the list: the Libertarian Party. Despite having been around for 45 years, the LPNY is not currently ballot-recognized.
How does a party become ballot-recognized? It is tied to the quadrennial gubernatorial election. To qualify, a candidate must receive 50,000 votes on that party’s line. If they fail to get those 50,000 votes in subsequent elections, they lose their status.
Getting on the Ballot
Ballot-recognized states makes a huge difference. It allows parties to organize differently, it lets parties hold primaries, and gives them easy ballot access. Without it, candidates need to engage in ballot petitioning, an arduous process designed to keep candidates off the ballot.
If you’re a candidate and you want to run in a primary for office from a ballot recognized party, generally you need five percent of the registered voters in your political unit. So if there are 10,000 registered Democrats in the polity you want to run for mayor in, you need 500 signatures to be on the primary ballot. That’s not a high barrier for a well-organized candidate from a major party.
With smaller parties, it’s even easier. If you want to run on the Working Families Party line in a town of 35,000 people, and there are 20 registered WFP voters there, two signatures is double what you need. (This is a real-life example. I know a politician who had her family members register in the WFP for that specific purpose.)
If you’re not a ballot-recognized party, the barrier is much higher. If you want to run as an independent, the requirements vary, but it’s something like 1,500 signatures for an assembly seat. But the higher the office, the higher the requirement. If you want to run for governor, you need 15,000 signatures.
The Real Challenge
I realize that 15,000 signatures doesn’t sound like a lot for a statewide candidate, but it’s actually a pretty big operation to collect that many signatures. Bigger still, because of challenges. Any citizen can challenge those ballot petitions, specifically or generally.
A general challenge is along the lines of “You don’t have 15,000 signatures.” Jimmy McMillan, famous as the guy from the Rent Is Too Damn High Party, filed petitions this year but you could tell from the number of volumes he submitted, he didn’t have the signatures. He succumbed to a general challenge.
The specific challenge goes to individual signatures. Each signature needs to be from a voter registered in New York, it needs to be legible, the address needs to match the voter registration records, and the town needs to be correct. That’s this little beauty.
That section is there specifically to make challenging petitions easier. My mailing address is “Schenectady,” but I live in the Town of Rotterdam. Now, I know that because I’ve lived there my whole life. But lots of people don’t know what town they live in. Or they write the village, not the town. Or they write hamlet, not the town. Or they think they live in one town when they actually live in another.
Oh, you didn’t know any of this? Neither did I until I learned about it this summer. While we were cleaning up and correlating petitions, a group of us sat there flipping through a gazetteer and piles of maps trying to figure out what town a specific address was actually in.
The idea is to get so many signatures (our goal was 30,000, double the requirement) as to deter any challenges. And you don’t just need 15,000 (actually 30,000) signatures. You also need at least 100 (actually 200) from each congressional district. Once we collected the signatures, they needed to be checked (for legibility and that the town and the witness statement at the bottom was filled out correctly) and then correlated.
And all this needs to be done in six weeks, that’s how long the petitioning period is. Then the correlated petitions need to be delivered in person, to the state board of elections in downtown Albany. When our team delivered them, we had a wagon full of boxes, full of bound petitions.
New York actually has several statewide positions up for election this year, so our petitions included the lieutenant governor, attorney general, and comptroller candidates. (They are Andrew Hollister, Chris Garvey, and Cruger Gallaudet, respectively.)
Wherever possible, individual state assembly and senate candidates were also included. However, in order for them to be included on statewide petitions, they districts need to cross county lines. So if you have a district completely within one county, you needed to be on a separate nominating petition. Why didn’t we include US Senate and House candidates on our petition? Oh, because those are completely different petitioning periods, which barely overlap.
Then there’s the petitioning period itself. These signatures all need to be collected, cleaned, collated, and delivered in a six-week period. This year that period started in the second week of July and ended in August. So it was scheduled for a time when a candidate should be campaigning, when colleges are out of session, and when people are away on vacation. Traditional door-to-door petition gathering, already difficult to begin with, is hampered by the schedule for the period.
Two Sets of Standards
Now, I’d have less of a complaint about this terrible system if it applied equally to everyone equally. However, Andrew Cuomo didn’t have to get 15,000 (actually 30,000) signatures to get on the ballot. He had to get zero.
You see, if you’re a ballot-recognized party, and you hold a convention, and you nominate a candidate for statewide office, you don’t have to file any petitions. Nada. Nothing. El Zilcho. To challenge the incumbent Cuomo, Cynthia Nixon needed 15,000 signatures to get on the primary ballot. But King Andrew got there merely by being nominated. (That’s one hell of a free pass for ballot-recognized parties.)
Thing may be different from the LPNY in four years if Larry Sharpe gets 50,000 votes in a few weeks. Then we’ll have made it past this barrier. But the candidate in 2022 will need to get 50,000 votes in order to keep that status. (Unless they change the rules to make it harder, which, if the LP is too much of a nuisance to the major parties, they well might.)
But in the meantime, when a candidate should be building an organization, getting name recognition, and raising funds, outside candidates, they have to expend time, energy, and cash jumping through hoops that their major party opponents do not.
If voters have problems with the LP, fine. If they take issue with minor parties acting as spoilers or “stealing” votes from major party candidates, so be it. But if they take swipes at minor parties and how they “never win anything,” understand that they’re starting at a disadvantage not faced by major party candidates. And if people complain about “the political class” or “the establishment” or even “the deep state,” please recognize that one of the tools they use to maintain their positions of power is excluding outside competition.
*In the interest of full disclosure, I should also mention that I’m a member of the NYLP state committee and that I filled out a form and am technically a member of the Sharpe campaign, although I haven’t done any work for them. And obviously, the views expressed here are entirely my own.