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News & Issues May 2021


Third-party candidates vanishing from N.Y. ballots

Tougher rules mean fewer Greens, Libertarians and others will run



Robin Barkenhagen, a former co-chairman of the Warren County Green Party, changed his enrollment to the Democratic Party in preparation for a bid for a city council seat this year. He says he switched partly because of new ballot access rules that make it much harder for third-party candidates to run. Joan K. Lentini photo


Contributing writer


When voters in New York head to the polls this November and next, they’ll likely have fewer candidates to choose among for local, state and federal offices.

New state rules make it much harder for third-party candidates to get their names on the ballot, and that has put a chill on party members who might have considered running for office. Four minor parties that were on ballots statewide last year, including the Libertarian and Green parties, have lost their guaranteed ballot access under the new rules.

Party leaders say the new standards for permanent ballot access are virtually impossible to achieve -- and threaten the survival of third parties in New York.

“We’re seeing fewer candidates,” said Pater LaVenia, the state co-chairman of the New York Green Party. “It becomes very difficult.”

LaVenia said the new rules are among the toughest in the nation.
The state Libertarian Party normally has more than 100 candidates running for offices around the state in a local election year, but this year it has heard from only about 25, state Chairman Cody Anderson said.

And the Serve America Movement, or SAM Party, which first gained a ballot line in New York in 2018 only to lose it under the new rules, has essentially taken a year off to regroup, said Evelyn Wood of Thurman, a Warren County organizer for the party.

“We’re trying to re-establish ourselves,” she said.
Under rules that had been in place for decades, any political party whose candidate for governor received at least 50,000 votes statewide was entitled to a line on New York’s ballots for the next four years. But the new rules, enacted by the Legislature last year as a late addition to the state budget, effectively tripled the threshold of votes needed to qualify for a ballot line – and required parties to qualify every two years instead of every four.

The change meant that, to keep their ballot status, minor parties had to have a 2020 presidential candidate who received at least 2 percent of the statewide vote, which worked out to more than 171,000 votes in last year’s high-turnout election.

Besides the Democratic and Republican parties, only the Conservative and Working Families parties, which backed major-party nominees Donald Trump and Joe Biden respectively, met that threshold.

The Green, Libertarian and Independence parties, whose presidential nominees each garnered less than 2 percent of the vote, and the SAM Party, which didn’t offer a presidential nominee, all lost their ballot lines.


More signatures needed
Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his allies, who pushed for the new rules, have cast the change as an effort at fiscal responsibility at a time when the state is moving toward a system of public matching funds for political campaign donations. Public funding, they argue, should only go to viable political parties that have demonstrated broad support among voters.

But critics say the change is a blatant attack on third parties that will wind up hurting democracy and limiting the choices available to voters.

“This is the United States,” Wood said. “We want to make it easier for people to get involved in government.”

Although the political parties that lost their ballot lines may continue to exist, the practical effect is that their individual candidates now will be required to gather lots more petition signatures to get their names onto ballots.

A Green Party candidate running for countywide office in Washington County, for example, would in recent years have needed to gather only 42 valid petition signatures when the party had a permanent ballot line. Now, in a normal year, that candidate would effectively need to run as an independent and gather 1,750 valid signatures. (The signature thresholds, based on a complex formula set by the state Board of Elections, have temporarily been cut in half, however, because of the Covid-19 pandemic.)

Anderson said that in a statewide race, a Libertarian Party candidate would have needed 15,000 petition signatures in recent years. But the same candidate would now need to collect 45,000 valid signatures.

And because the state no longer recognizes the Greens or Libertarians as official political parties, those signatures must now come from a collection of voters who aren’t enrolled in one of the recognized parties – and who haven’t signed a competing candidate’s petition.
“Instead of being able to go out and collect from your party, you have to go out and knock on doors,” explained LaVenia, the Green Party co-chairman.


Candidates holding back
Locally, the change is discouraging some minor-party candidate from running — or is prompting them to switch to one of the major parties instead.

Matt Funiciello, the Green Party candidate in 2014 and 2016 for the 21st Congressional District seat, said the party’s loss of ballot access is helping to ensure he won’t run again anytime soon.
“I think I am going to just be a regular enrolled Green, and I will find other ways to get my message out,” he said.

Robin Barkenhagen, a former co-chairman of the Warren Country Green Party, said the party’s loss of ballot status was one of the reasons he switched his enrollment to the Democratic Party in preparation for running for a Glens Falls Common Council seat this year.

Another factor, he said, was that running as a Democrat positions him to compete in a two-person race, rather than a three-person contest, in November. Barkenhagen previously ran on the Green Party line for state Assembly in 2002 and 2016 and for Glens Falls councilman-at-large in 2017.

Wood, who last year ran as the SAM Party candidate for the 114th Assembly District seat, said that besides the hurdle of having to gather many more petition signatures, candidates from the parties that lost their ballot lines face another disincentive. Because they must run as independents, their names would appear farther down the ballot, below the ballot lines of the officially recognized parties.

“It makes it much more difficult to get found on the ballot,” she said.
Anderson, the Libertarian chairman, said this also makes it less likely that candidates enrolled in other parties will seek dual endorsements from the minor parties. (In New York, candidates can run on multiple ballot lines and combine the number of votes they receive on each line.)


Bigger barriers to access
Under the new election rules, the threshold for political parties to obtain or keep permanent ballot status is now 130,000 votes -- or 2 percent of the votes cast statewide, whichever is greater — for the party’s gubernatorial and presidential candidates. In 2020, the 2 percent threshold worked out to about 171,000 votes.

The Libertarian presidential candidate, Jo Jorgensen, received 60,383 votes in New York, which would have qualified the party for ballot access under the old threshold for governor’s races. The Green Party candidate, Howie Hawkins, received 32,942 votes, while the Independence Party candidate, Brooke Pierce, garnered 22,656.

LaVenia said it was difficult to get voters to choose the Green Party in a year when many were so passionate about the choice between Biden and Trump.

Minor-party leaders say the new threshold is virtually impossible to achieve, particularly in a presidential election year. Third-party presidential candidates typically are not allowed to participate in presidential debates and do not get the level of media and public attention that the major-party candidates receive, LaVenia said.

Several other states that use the presidential vote as a threshold for ballot access offer alternative methods to get on the ballot, but New York does not, he said.

Even the 50,000-vote threshold in governor’s races was difficult to achieve.
It took the Libertarian party 50 years to earn permanent ballot status based on its performance in the 2018 governor’s race. Then it lost it two years later under the new rules.

“Essentially they moved the goal posts after we kicked our field goal,” Anderson said.
The Green Party qualified for a ballot line in 2010, and re-qualified in 2014 and 2018.


Legal challenge pending
The Green and Libertarian parties have jointly filed a lawsuit to overturn the new rules. Oral arguments were expected to begin in late April.

Anderson expressed optimism about the outcome.
“The fact that we’re even being heard in oral arguments is a great sign,” he said.
LaVenia was more guarded.

“It’s very difficult to tell” what the result of the legal challenge will be, he said. “The court has been less than enthusiastic with hearing arguments on this.”

A federal court dismissed a previous case that the Working Families and SAM parties filed to overturn the new rules.

The case brought by the Green and Libertarian parties is more detailed, and they waited until after the November election to file it, so they could show that the parties had been actually harmed by the new rules, Anderson said.

State Sens. Robert Jackson, D-Manhattan, and James Sanders, D-Queens, introduced legislation in January to restore ballot access rules to the previous threshold and time frame. But the legislation did not have an Assembly sponsor as of April 21 and had gained no traction in the Senate.

Minor-party leaders said they are committed to getting gubernatorial candidates on the ballot in 2022, even if the lawsuit is unsuccessful.

“We’re going to have a candidate, and we’re going to use the gubernatorial election to bring up this issue of ballot access,” LaVenia said.

New York Independence Party Chairman Frank MacKay did not respond to a request seeking comment for this report.