It’s a small example of how the major parties dominate our elections, but it will serve as well as any other.
Roger Hull, former president of Union College, founded his own independent party as a vehicle for him to run for mayor and for other, like-minded people to run for City Council and the County Legislature in Schenectady.
They gathered the necessary signatures to get on the ballot, which was itself a challenge, since the major parties go first in the signature-gathering process and anyone who signs with them cannot later sign anyone else’s petition, but they did it.
Then came the drawing up of the ballot by the county Board of Elections. The established parties get top billing, ranked according to how many votes they got for governor in the last election. First the Democratic Party, then the Republican, then the Conservative, then Working Families, then the Independence Party, all of which got 50,000 or more votes for governor last year, and finally, at the bottom, Hull’s new Alliance Party, which doesn’t qualify as an actual party yet but just as an independent organization. Fair enough.
If you want to vote a straight party line, you go down to your preferred party and read across — so-and-so for mayor, so-and-so for legislator.
It is one of the idiosyncracies of New York politics that candidates get a separate line on the ballot for each party they represent, so a Democrat who is endorsed also by the Conservative Party, which is common, will appear twice, whereas in other states he would appear only once with the various parties he represents indicated under his name. It’s not unheard of for candidates in our fair state to appear on the ballot three and even four times.
It makes for a system in which candidates compete to get as many lines as possible, figuring they thus increase their chances.
Hull and his running mates, having figured out the system, made the customary effort to win the endorsements of other parties. Their biggest success was with the Republican Party, which endorsed six of their seven candidates. This was significant because, although locally feeble, the Republican Party is still No. 2 statewide and thus occupies the second spot on the ballot.
(Politicians figure that some proportion of the electorate can’t be bothered looking down the list and will just vote for whoever is at or near the top.)
Alliance Party people also tried to get write-in votes to represent the various lesser parties but did not succeed in that effort. So in the end they wound up with one candidate (Madrea Chaires for City Council) representing only the Alliance Party; three candidates (Hull for mayor, Vince Riggi and Jacqueline Hurd for City Council) representing both the Alliance Party and the Republican Party; two candidates (Phil Tiberio for City Council and Peter Guidarelli for County Legislature) representing the Alliance Party plus both the Republican and the Conservative parties; and one candidate (Rich Patierne for County Legislature) representing the Alliance Party plus both the Republican and the Independence parties.)
Fat city, you might think, for the lucky three — Tiberio, Guidarelli and Patierne — who were backed by three parties and thus would get three lines on the ballot.
But no, ladies and gentlemen, that’s not how it works, as we found out the other day.
When the county Board of Elections drew up the official ballot and published it on its website, the lucky three turned out to be the unlucky three. They did not appear on the Alliance Party line at all but only on the lines of their other two parties.
Why? Because after consultation with the state Board of Elections, the local board decided that’s what the law requires. State Election Law, by no means lucidly written, seems to require that if a candidate appears on the lines of two of the officially recognized parties (Democratic, Republican, Conservative, Working Families, Independence) he cannot also appear on the line of an “independent organization” like the fledgling Alliance Party.
So off we went to state Supreme Court, the Hon. Barry Kramer presiding, for a ruling on this matter, and Kramer (Democrat, Conservative) while conceding that violence was being done to common sense, upheld the Board of Election’s decision.
Never mind that no “clutter” would be added to the ballot, which is one of the justifications for restricting the presence of newcomer parties, since in this case the line will still be there and it’s only a question of whether to fill in the names.
“It’s totally nonsensical,” Hull complained later, noting that if he and his running mates had all been successful in gaining other lines on the ballot, nobody would have appeared as Alliance Party candidates, despite their success in collecting signatures. The whole line would have been blank.
The only recognition the party will get is a fine-print note in the Republican box. So if you vote for Rich Patierne, for example, for County Legislature, there will be a tiny note above his name in the Republican box saying “Alliance Party.”
Much of the discussion in court had to do with discerning the intent of the state Legislature as it amended the Election Law to keep up with changing technology, which prompted Hull to note that the Legislature is run by the major parties, so of course their intent is to protect their own power. As it surely is.
What does a given amendent to the Election Law mean in all its inartful wordiness (as conceded by the county’s own attorney)? Safe bet it means if you try to crack the system you’re going to get beaten down. You’re going to spend many hours and many days collecting signatures to place your upstart party on the ballot, and in the end your upstart party will be there but its candidates won’t be! So the joke will be on you.
“They’ve proved themselves incompetent in running the city,” an unhappy Hull said later. “The only thing they’re competent in is running the political process.”
Welcome to New York, I say.