In an unprecedented and little-noted ruling earlier this month, almost every Democrat running on the Working Families Party (WFP) line in New York City was thrown off the November ballot by the city’s Board of Elections. The move, based on a confusing legal technicality, highlighted the oddity of state election law, the cronyism of the board, and the desperate need for reform.
In all, nearly two dozen Democrats can’t run on the WFP line in the five boroughs—almost all of them City Council candidates. Most of these general election races in deep-blue New York are noncompetitive, so the progressive candidates themselves shouldn’t be deeply impacted in practice. There is one City Council race, however, in a swing district where the loss of the WFP line could cost the Democrat votes.
What happened exactly? Under a pandemic-era emergency law authorized by Governor Andrew Cuomo, candidates gathering signatures to reach the ballot can have these signatures either signed remotely—with a notary watching over Zoom or FaceTime—or even electronically, without pen and paper. The WFP filed certificates of authorization—documents needed for Democrats to appear on their ballot line—with electronic signatures. Outside of New York City, WFP candidates had no problem appearing on the ballot for November.
But the New York City Board of Elections moved to block the WFP, arguing that only “wet” signatures—those signed with pen and paper—could be used. “Even if it was notarized by remote notarization, the signatures that were submitted were not wet signatures,” Frederic Umane, president of the city Board of Elections, said at a recent hearing.
The WFP took the case to court but lost on an odd technicality: A judge ruled that it failed to properly serve the Board of Elections. Legal experts were perplexed, but the case was nevertheless dismissed. Now almost every WFP-endorsed candidate in the five boroughs will run without actually appearing on the WFP ballot line.
New York is one of the few states in America where candidates can appear on multiple ballot lines at once. It’s fairly common for a Democrat to also run as a WFP candidate and a Republican to run with the endorsement of the Conservative Party.
“Seeing the Commissioners take the extraordinary step of throwing our candidates off the ballot, without careful examination of the law and their own rules, is deeply concerning,” Sharon Cromwell, the deputy director of the New York WFP, said in a statement. “It shakes our faith in the ability of the BOE leadership to administer elections in a fair, impartial, and consistent way.”
The WFP is right to feel aggrieved here—the BOE made an arbitrary decision, in seeming violation of state law. And the party has reason to be skeptical about the board’s motivations, considering that the very Democratic and Republican machines that the WFP has long opposed still hold great sway there.
Unlike many other states, election boards across New York are staffed almost entirely by patronage appointees, a vestige of the Tammany Hall era that never went away. The local Democratic and Republican parties are allowed to nominate the commissioners and recommend staff hires. Employees of the BOE, especially in New York City, typically have ties to Democratic Party bosses or their underlings. Employees include Beth Fossella, the mother of former Republican congressman Vito Fossella; Pamela Perkins, the wife of Democratic City Council member Bill Perkins; Ruben Diaz III, the son of the Bronx borough president, Ruben Diaz Jr.; and Raphael Savino, the brother of Joseph Savino, the former Bronx Republican leader. These patronage hires have presided over a string of high-profile failures, including the bungling of the results in the mayoral primary.
For the Democratic establishment, this status quo has considerable advantages. Neither Cuomo nor the leaders in the state Legislature have attempted any serious reforms, despite repeated outcries. A constitutional amendment could end the system of patronage and create a nonpartisan agency of experts to oversee elections, but Cuomo has never publicly backed the idea and Democrats below him haven’t fought for it. While liberals nationally are focused on the Republican-run states that still try to suppress votes, they’ve remained curiously quiet about the dysfunction in their own backyard, where the shambolic New York election administration resembles that of an old Southern state.
The good news for WFP is that the ballot line barely has a function in the five boroughs, where Democrats dominate—and votes won on third-party lines make little difference. The sole exception may be a City Council race in Queens, where a schoolteacher named Felicia Singh is running in an open seat that has been represented by a Republican for more than a decade. In tight races, third-party votes can matter: Both the WFP and Conservative parties can hustle votes to their candidates as they try to pull in the relatively small number of people who don’t vote for the two major parties.
Fusion voting has a colorful history in New York. The WFP has long argued that it’s vital to the effort to build a progressive movement here, pointing to the past successes of left-wing third parties in the 20h century, particularly the American Labor Party. When Democratic machines were much stronger, smaller parties used the cross-endorsement process to compete with the establishment. These days, the most valuable aspect of the ballot line, for the WFP, might be what it allows: political parties can funnel virtually unlimited amounts of money to their endorsed candidates in coordination with them.
Conservatives in the state have enjoyed the benefits of fusion as well. In the suburbs, the Conservative Party has traditionally been influential, outpolling the WFP and helping Republicans buttress their wins. The now-defunct Independence Party, a sham third party that often registered voters who mistakenly believed they had chosen to be without a political party, tended to cross-endorse Republican candidates, helping them beat Democrats. Outside of New York City, some Democrats are skeptical of fusion voting and were glad Cuomo, a beneficiary of cross-endorsements himself, briefly tried to end it.
Unlike the WFP, the Conservatives have kept their candidates on ballot lines in New York City. The problem for them is there are very few, if any, candidates running competitively on them. The Republican nominee for mayor, Curtis Sliwa, is not appearing on the Conservative Party line at all. A retired NYPD officer with an even lesser chance of winning, Bill Pepitone, has the ballot line instead. Most of their other candidates are similar long shots.
Regardless of the merits of fusion voting, the BOE’s decision was capricious. A nonpartisan entity would have probably made a different decision. The whole episode underlines how much New York needs a competent election administration, free of gross political machinations.