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OpinionColumnistsRita Ciolli

Surprise budget add could doom minor parties

Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins, left, greets Republican

Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins, left, greets Republican candidate Marc Molinaro after a gubernatorial debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters at The College of Saint Rose on Nov. 1, 2018 in Albany. Credit: AP / Hans Pennink

There is no end to the goodies that can be found in the spring basket that is the new state budget. One hidden Easter egg in particular can sweeten the clout of the major political parties and all but kill off the state’s myriad minor parties. And it’s not just the shiny nugget that could end fusion voting, or cross-endorsements, that is stirring all the buzz.

In the final hours of the budget negotiations, lawmakers and the governor agreed to establish a new commission that would design a public campaign financing system. The scramble over who could be the ninth commission member with a potential key vote in writing the rules is getting hotter by the hour. The commission must be formed by June.

The legislation gives the commission considerable power to change other election rules, particularly the ability of minor parties to give Democrat or Republican nominees their lines. Few states do it this way and that is why voters often see Democrats on the Working Families Party line and Republicans on the Conservative Party lines or other parties such as Women’s Equality and Reform. Except, of course, in Suffolk, which offers the especially bastardized Democratic-Conservative fusion experience.

The state allocated only $100 million for the public funding program for statewide offices and State Legislature seats, so the commission could justify ending cross-endorsements because it would cut down on the number of primary challenges that would qualify for funding.

But the end of cross-endorsements is not the only threat looming for the minor parties and their political bosses. The new law also charges the commission with looking at “political party qualifications,” and those three words are easy to read over amid all the other details. But match those words up with Sec 1 (3) of New York’s existing election law. That permits a political party automatic ballot access if it earns at least 50,000 votes in the previous gubernatorial election.

So the commission has the power to substantially raise that threshold and it's unlikely any minor party, except perhaps the Conservative Party, which gave 253,624 votes to Republican Marc Molinaro in 2018, survives. Tough decisions will be made by the Conservative Party to support an appealing candidate who can earn the threshold number of votes, but it would come at the cost of siphoning the vote from the Republican candidate whom the Conservative Party usually cross-endorses.

The Green Party, which currently commands the fourth line on the state ballot, has never given its line away to a major party candidate, instead running someone who espouses the party ideology. In 2018, Howie Hawkins got 103,946 votes.

Perhaps the loudest minor league player is the Working Families Party which only did slightly better than the Greens, garnering 114,478 votes for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. Fear of not reaching the 50,000 threshold is why the WFP unceremoniously dropped actress Cynthia Nixon after she lost the Democratic primary to Cuomo last year and then begged him to run on its line to qualify as a political party.

Not only can the commission change the voting threshold, it also could change when the qualifying statewide elections take place, possibly in both gubernatorial and presidential contests. And as soon as 2020. That could mean most minor parties would be gone by the 2021 races, unless they make the considerable and expensive effort to petition their way onto the ballot every year.

The commission’s recommendations are due by Dec. 1, and will become law unless the legislature overturns its report by Dec. 22. And for Democratic lawmakers to do so, would also mean killing the progressive wing’s long-desired goal of public campaign financing.

Revenge is a dish always best served cold.

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