By: David Schlosser
Last year Brad Smith provided this blog with a post that gives an overview of fusion voting laws in New York State. In this post I would like to look into a case study that, for some, sheds some doubt on the desirability of fusion voting laws.
The Independence Party of the State of New York (IPNY) is a minor party that states on its website, “candidates and elected officials should be free to tell the voters what their views are, without dictates from political party bosses, special interest groups and restrictive party platforms.” With this in mind, in most elections the IPNY has preferred to endorse major party candidates under the fusion voting system, rather than nominate their own (they last endorsed Andrew Cuomo for governor, for instance). Because of fusion voting laws, the IPNY appears on the ballot year-in year-out, despite this general (though not absolute) refusal to nominate separate candidates. This is coupled with a lack of discernable political position, which sharply contrasts to many of New York’s other minor parties that owe their existence to the fusion system, such as the Conservative Party (on the right) and the Working Families Party (on the left). One New York Times columnist called the IPNY, “a bizarre amalgam of right-wing populists married to black leftists and once led by Fred Newman, a Marxist therapist…” In the party’s defense, its website does include a few statements on policy positions, such as an opposition to Common Core and a support for the Dream Act.
Due to the IPNY’s name and non-ideological stance, some confusion may arise. In 2014, the Daily News found that out of 200 Independence Party members, 169 thought that they were registered as (small-i) “independents,” as in members of no party, rather than members of an actual party called the “Independence Party.” As of 2012, the state’s Board of Elections numbered the party’s official membership at 474,011 voters. If the Daily News’ survey is accurate (and of course it may not be) then as many as 400,000 New York are accidental members of the IPNY. Iin response to this criticism, the IPNY has called for New York to revise their voter registration forms to make them less confusing.
Moreover, in New York, a party’s position on the ballot is determined by their success in the gubernatorial race. In the last gubernatorial election, the IPNY nominated sitting Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo, earning roughly 77,000 votes in the process, enough to appear in the next ballot. Cuomo’s defeated Republican challenger, Rob Astorino, claimed that the possibly confusing name is part of a deliberate strategy by the IPNY to maintain its place on the ballot. According to Astorino, the party maintains a “corrupt” system that does not “stand for a thing other than jobs and…themselves.” Both the New York Daily News and the New York Times called for Cuomo to reject the IPNY’s endorsement and call for reform of the fusion voting system.
New York State courts have scrutinized the IPNY in recent years. The IPNY endorsed New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s re-election campaign in 2009. After a Republican consultant working for the Bloomberg campaign stole over a million dollars from the campaign, the New York District Attorney froze the IPNY’s accounts, citing concern that they were complicit in the theft.
In response to these various controversies the IPNY has maintained that its existence benefits the state’s electoral system. Chairman Frank MacKay wrote, “What our Independence Party elected officials all share in common is the freedom to legislate without interference from political leaders and special interests.” Back in 2005, Cathy L. Stewart, then the Chairwoman of the New York County (Manhattan) branch of the party, noted that the Times criticized her party both when it ran its own candidates and when it cross-endorsed major parties, and also stated that independent voters are recognized when they vote for a major-party candidate on a minor party line.