03 August 2012

The failure of third-party law in New York State

Today's Albany Times Union notes the latest pathetic turn in the fortune of the Working Families Party. An editorial reports that a local woman is running in the WFP primary for a state assembly seat in order to give her fiance a chance to win the nomination. The favorite for the nomination is a woman who has already secured the Democratic endorsement for that seat. Like her, Keith Hammond is a Democrat. Spurned by his own party, he hopes to challenge Cheryl Roberts on the WFP line but is handicapped by the fact that he isn't a party member. Solution: circulate petitions to put his fiancee, who is a member, on the WFP primary ballot. Once the nomination is contested, anyone, regardless of party registration, can be named as a write-in candidate. In other words, according to the newspaper, Brenda Mahar is running only so Hammond can sneak through a loophole in election law and snag the nomination. Whether the strategy works or not, it only proves, on top of countless proofs, that New York's law allowing cross-endorsement of candidates across party lines tends to gut independent parties of any integrity.

In allowing cross-endorsements, New York’s third-party system was envisioned as a pragmatic response to political idealism. Rather than cast their votes for a minor party candidate destined to lose, people could vote for someone cross-endorsed by a group whose policy stances more nearly match theirs. Conservatives can vote on a Conservative line, liberals on the WFP line or the even more progressive Green line, and so on. New York is one of only eight states to allow such “fusion voting.”
Instead of giving us choices, however, the system has given us hanky-panky over and over. The sham candidacy of Ms. Mahar is typical: How is either democracy or the progressivism that the WFP supposedly stands for served by a system that allows a candidate on the ballot who doesn’t even want to win?
If minor parties are to be taken seriously, let them field candidates of their own — one ballot line per candidate. Anything else is just a spectacle.

What was the benefit to the independent or ideologically-driven voter of cross-endorsement? In theory, it gave leverage to the small parties by showing that a significant portion of a successful candidate's support had particular ideological or policy demands that should be met if the candidate wanted the same group's support in the future. For that idea to work, a candidate must be convinced that he can't win without that group's support. In most cases, however, the returns don't support such claims. Worse, ideological parties are driven by the national tendency toward ideological bipolarchy. Would a party like the WFP really withhold its support from a Democratic candidate, for any reason, if partisans believed that doing so would lead to a Republican victory? Ideology aside, ballot-access rules impose an incentive to cross-endorse, since endorsing well-known brand-name candidates is the shortest way for an ostensibly independent party to reach the vote threshold necessary to guarantee a spot on the state ballot for the next election cycle. As the Times Union notes, the consequence of cross-endorsement is more likely a party compromising its principles to secure a powerful politician on its line than the politician accommodating the party to earn its spot. Since the equality of political parties is conditional when the state has power over the ballot, compromises are often a prerequisite for ballot access that defeats the purpose of getting on a ballot. Third parties in New York are too easily compromised and too easily infiltrated. There has to be an easier way for independents to contest elections -- a way that is more just to parties and voters alike. How much longer should we wait for someone to figure it out?

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