Kathy Hochul, Lee Zeldin and nobody else
Op-Ed by Chris Churchill, Albany Times Union, September 27, 2022, Olean Times Herald, September 28, 2022
ALBANY — Walk into any supermarket and you’ll find a variety of breakfast cereals to match nearly any taste. Shop online and you can select, say, shoes to meet your idiosyncratic preferences.
This is what we've come to expect in this age of choice. Almost everywhere there are alternatives to the same-old boring whatever. Nearly everywhere, we have options to satisfy every niche, variety that feels infinite and empowering.
Everywhere, except at the ballot box.
This year's governor’s race is the first since 1946 in which New Yorkers will have just two names on the ballot. Those names, of course, are Kathy Hochul and Lee Zeldin. A Democrat and a Republican. Coke and Pepsi. Same old, and more same old.
For this meager selection, we can largely blame former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who pushed changes that made it much harder for third-party and independent candidates to get on the ballot. His message to New Yorkers: Take your protest vote and shove it.
Perhaps it's poetic justice that the disgraced Democrat is watching the contest from the sidelines, unable to benefit from his own machinations. But that might be scant consolation to the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who decide in a typical year vote for minor-party candidates. That choice has disappeared.
"The Democrats and Republicans don’t represent all of us," said Howie Hawkins, the perennial Green Party nominee who received 104,000 votes in the 2018 governor's race. "You need more than two choices to have a real debate."
Enacted in 2020, Cuomo's changes tripled the number of voter signatures required to get on the ballot, shortened the petitioning period, and moved that window from summer to spring.
In the estimation of Hawkins and many others, New York now has the most demanding ballot-access hurdles in the nation, ensuring that only deep-pocketed establishment candidates are presented as choices. It takes real money to gather so many signatures, after all, and most minor parties don't have it.
But limiting choice is part of the point. While third-party or independent candidates hardly ever win — or even come close — they do tip elections or embarrass incumbents from time to time. A closed system, limited to Democrats and Republicans or the parties that typically provide another ballot line for the very same Democrats and Republicans, carries less risk.
"The people who make the rules are the people who benefit from keeping me out," said Larry Sharpe, who as the Libertarian Party nominee in 2018 received nearly 100,000 votes.
It's as if Walmart and Target are deciding where you can shop. It's like McDonald’s and Burger King choosing… well, you see where I'm going.
Sharpe told me he doesn’t much blame Cuomo for what’s happened. A dog is going to bark, he said. A scorpion is going to sting. And Cuomo was going to do whatever he could to punish perceived enemies and consolidate power.
"But somebody should have checked him," added Sharpe, who said he’s been shocked that so few political and media voices have stood up for third parties and choice.
The changes went through with little debate, in part because Cuomo tucked them into a budget approved in April 2020, as the exploding coronavirus pandemic dominated the news. While the Working Families Party was widely seen as the former governor's main target, minor parties that decline to cross-endorse ended up hurt the most.
Sharpe and the Libertarian Party subsequently turned to the courts, arguing that the changes violate the public’s First Amendment right to protest and amount to voter suppression. Earlier this month, though, a state appeals court rejected those arguments.
The Green and Libertarian parties have both appealed to Gov. Kathy Hochul to undo Cuomo’s charges, arguing last year in a joint letter that the ex-governor's actions “crippled the possibility of democratic competition and good governance in New York.” So far, Hochul and other Democrats in control of things in Albany their plea to “renew democracy.”And so, while Hawkins and Sharpe are both attempting to mount write-in campaigns, only the two most familiar and well-financed candidates will be on the ballot.
Gone, at least for now, are options such as the Rent Is Too Damn High Party, which nominated Jimmie McMillan as its gubernatorial candidate in 2010, or the American Labor Party, which in the 1942 governor’s race garnered more than 400,000 votes with Dean Alfange as its nominee.
Gone, for now, is a choice beyond the usual two options.
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