hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues December 2021-January 2022


Zombie candidates prompt calls for change

Third party decries hostile takeover of ballot line in some local races


Contributing writer


In the days leading up to the Nov. 2 election, leaders of the local Working Families Party delivered an unusual campaign message to Saratoga Springs voters: Ignore the party’s candidates for city offices, they said, and vote for the Democratic candidates instead.
The small, left-leaning political party often provides a second ballot line for Democratic candidates. But earlier this year, party leaders in Saratoga Springs say Republican operatives effectively hijacked the Working Families ballot line on behalf of a slate of “phony candidates.”
“They caught us where we didn’t see it happening,” said Joe Seeman, who represents Saratoga County on the state Working Families party committee. “Fool us once, shame on you. Fool us twice, shame on me.”

In Saratoga Springs and some other jurisdictions around the state, including Rensselaer County, an unusually large number of new voters opted to enroll in the Working Families Party earlier this year. While voter enrollment in the party increased by about 10 percent statewide over the past year, enrollment increased by 28 percent in Saratoga County and by 120 percent in Rensselaer County.

The party’s leaders smelled a plot. Many of the new Working Families voters were previously Republicans or had been enrolled in the Independence Party, which lost its ballot status last year. The new voters then signed nominating petitions for candidates with links to local Republicans. These candidates didn’t campaign actively, but they effectively blocked Democrats from access to a second ballot line.

“There was clearly a strategic plan,” Seeman said.
Now, Seeman and other longtime Working Families leaders are calling the experience a wake-up call.

Andy Kier, who represents the Capital District on the state committee, said the party must do a better job of educating the public about the its core values -- and work to enroll new members who share those values.

“I think the biggest thing that we’re going to pursue is to grow our enrollment numbers,” Kier said. “And there’s also an education piece.”


A flawed system?
Others say the episode points to bigger problems with New York’s practice of allowing candidates to run on multiple party lines and combine the number of votes received on each ballot line.
The practice, commonly known as “fusion voting” or “cross endorsement,” was once common across the United States in the 19th century. Today, however, New York and Vermont are among only eight states that still allow it. (The others are Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Mississippi, Oregon and South Carolina.)

“I think it goes to the flaws of the fusion voting system,” said Robert Turner, a political science professor at Skidmore College.

He described the experience in Saratoga Springs, where multiple news outlets reported that a Republican operative enrolled new Working Families Party members and then circulated nominating petitions to put some of these new members on the ballot for city offices.
“They enrolled … sort-of-ghost candidates,” Turner said. “They didn’t actively campaign, they didn’t have campaign websites, and they didn’t have a presence in social media.”

Similar efforts occurred in Rensselaer County, in western New York and in the lower Hudson Valley, said Anita Thayer, state treasurer of the Working Families Party.

The tactic is legal, as long as the candidates have enrolled in the party by the state’s deadline and collect a sufficient number of signatures of party members on nominating petitions.
Turner said it appeared the effort was intended to siphon off votes from progressive voters who might otherwise have supported cross-endorsed Democratic candidates on the Working Families line.
“There are a certain number of this sort of lefty Democrats who vote the Working Families line to make a statement,” he explained.


Potential to sway close races
Seeman and other Working Families leaders took the unusual step of holding a press conference just before Election Day in November to urge voters to vote the Democratic ticket, not the Working Families candidates, in Saratoga Springs races.

As it turned out, votes cast on the Working Families line did not change the outcome of any of the Saratoga Springs races. Democratic candidates won four of the five seats on the City Council, including the mayor’s office.

But the city has seen its share of close elections over the past two decades, and Turner said the tactic in some years could have swayed the outcome.
“In a really close election, 80 to 100 votes can matter,” he said.

In Rensselaer County, the number of voters enrolled in the Working Families Party increased from 999 on Nov. 1, 2020 to 2,190 on Nov. 1, 2021, according to figures compiled by the state Board of Elections.

The Times Union of Albany reported earlier this year that Rensselaer County Republican Chairman John Rustin and GOP operative Richard Crist acknowledged a coordinated effort to assist people in changing their enrollment from the Independence Party to the Working Families Party.

Neither Rustin nor Crist responded to messages seeking comment for this report.
Thayer, the Working Families state treasurer, said not all of the party’s enrollment increase in Rensselaer County can be attributed to Republican efforts, because the party also conducted its own enrollment drive in the county.

“So some of the gains in Rensselaer County were on our part, though not sufficient,” she said.
In Saratoga County, the Working Families party enrollment increased to 583 on Nov. 1 from 454 on the same date in 2020, according to the state’s figures.

Local party leaders say it has not all been natural growth.


Shifting ballot-access rules
Kier said that in Rensselaer County, the activity appeared to be fueled by a recent state law that made it harder for third parties to achieve ballot status.

The Independence Party had often cross-endorsed Republican candidates in Rensselaer County elections. But the Independence, Libertarian, Green and Serve America Movement (SAM) parties all lost their ballot lines in November 2020 under a new law that raised the threshold of votes needed to qualify for permanent ballot status.

The new law also required parties to qualify every two years instead of every four, tying ballot access to presidential elections, where previously it had only been determined by the number of votes a party garnered in gubernatorial races.

Green Party leaders have said the change unfairly targets third parties that do not cross-endorse candidates from other political parties.

The Working Families Party, which often cross-endorses Democratic candidates, and the Conservative Party, which often cross-endorses Republicans, were the only two minor parties to retain permanent ballot access.

The Green Party has long opposed fusion voting, saying it merely extends the power of the two-party system.

The state Democratic Committee in 2019 passed a resolution recommending ending fusion voting. But political observers at the time said the goal of that resolution was not reform so much as an effort to punish the Working Families Party for backing Cynthia Nixon for governor against incumbent Democrat Andrew Cuomo in the 2018 Democratic primary.

Turner said fusion voting may have had merits at one time but has outlived its practicality.
“Really, what it’s done is that it’s given these people with the third-party lines the ability to sort of extort promises from candidates,” he said, adding that he was referring to third parties in general and not specifically to the Working Families Party.

But others say fusion voting increases voter turnout.
“Fusion is not a panacea, but it does improve elections,” Adam Morse and J.J. Gass concluded in a 2006 essay for the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.
The writers said fusion voting allows voters to make a statement about policies by voting on a third-party line while still supporting a viable candidate.

“In an election without fusion, voters must, in most cases, choose between expressing their support for a minor party’s agenda and participating in the actual choice between the major-party candidates who have a chance of winning,” they wrote.

Thayer, the Working Families state treasurer, expressed a similar sentiment about fusion voting.
“The solution is to fix it so that it works, not to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” she said.
Thayer said the incidents in this year’s election were something of a fluke, because the number of signatures needed on nominating petitions was temporarily reduced in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.