New York State

Conventions: How parties choose candidates months before the primary

Political parties choose candidates months before the primary.

New York Delegates, including Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and former state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman cast thei

New York Delegates, including Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and former state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman cast thei Justin Lane/Epa/REX/Shutterstock

May, known for flowers, Cinco de Mayo and Star Wars Day, is also one of the most exciting months for New York politics. It’s convention time in New York, and this year’s state primary races are as dramatic as ever.

The Working Families Party, the Green Party and the Reform Party each held their conventions over the weekend. The Republican and Democratic parties are set to designate their candidates for statewide office this week.

Yes, you read that correctly. A party can choose its candidates months before the primary ballots are cast. But that doesn’t mean the voters have no opportunity to push back on what party leaders decide; any qualified voter registered with a party and residing in the state can collect 15,000 petitions to get on the ballot for the September primaries.

To do so when the party apparatus has settled on someone else, though, is extremely difficult for anyone less wealthy than Michael Bloomberg.

So what will that mean for Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is being challenged by Cynthia Nixon, an actress and activist?

On the Republican side, the state convention’s likely outcome determined the party’s nominee before the convention even started. State Sen. John DeFrancisco, a GOP candidate for governor, suspended his campaign after it became apparent that Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro was going to get the state Republican Party’s designation.

Meanwhile, the attorney general’s position is suddenly vacant, and various candidates are scrambling to win the Democratic designation, while some parties are struggling to find a nominee.

If you’re wondering how it’s even possible for the party select a candidate without a primary, here’s how New York’s complicated system works.

How can you get on the primary ballot?

According to state election law, a candidate can get on the state party ballot if he or she receives over 25 percent of the vote cast by the state party committee during their convention. The person who receives the majority of the vote at the convention will become the party’s designated nominee. If a candidate does not get over 25 percent of the vote at the convention, he or she must obtain 15,000 designating petitions from voters in the party across the state to get on the ballot. The window of time to collect signatures this year begins June 5 and they must be filed by mid-July.

Do all counties have the same weight in a party convention?

In other words, do committee members from Hamilton County, population 4,485, and Kings County, population 2,648,771, get the same number of votes? Not exactly. In general, each Assembly district has two party committee members: one male and one female. The party convention votes are weighted, with the weight depending on the number of voters in the district who voted on the party line in the last gubernatorial election.

So counties with a higher share of Republicans will be more heavily weighted for the Republican convention, and vice versa. Kings County, aka Brooklyn, is the heaviest hitter in the state Democratic convention, while Suffolk County will be the best-represented county on the GOP side.

This is how Molinaro was able to all but lock up the Republican Party nomination: by gaining support from county party chairs who represented a weighted share of the vote at the convention. DeFrancisco then suspended his campaign, knowing that Molinaro would get the nomination at the convention and apparently not wanting to fight through to the primary.

Wait, so the party can nominate a candidate without consulting the voters first? Without even having a primary?

The party designation is just an endorsement from the state party committee. The party technically does not select a nominee until the primary. The second-place candidate at the convention, though he or she would not be the designee, could get on the ballot by winning 25 percent or more of the votes at the convention. Any candidate can get on the ballot by collecting 15,000 signatures from voters registered with that party. Zephyr Teachout took this route to get on the ballot when she ran against Cuomo in the 2014 Democratic primary and Nixon may replicate this strategy.

Having the party’s designation also doesn’t guarantee that a candidate will win the primary. In 1982, New York City Mayor Ed Koch received the state Democratic Party’s designation for governor. However, then-Lt. Gov. Mario Cuomo won the primary.

If whoever earns the state party’s designation runs unopposed in the primary – which may occur with Molinaro – then the party essentially chose a nominee without any input from the voters. But, if DeFrancisco so chose, he could collect the petitions and make a run for it.

But I feel like there is always a primary. How often does the party choose a nominee at the convention who then cruises to the nomination unopposed?

In 2014, Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino won his primary unopposed. In 2006, a contested primary was averted when Bill Weld dropped out after John Faso received the state Republican Party’s designation. In recent years, it seems as if the Republican Party has been more willing to fall in line and support one candidate than the Democratic Party.

What is a Wilson-Pakula? People keep saying “Wilson-Pakula” like I should know what it means.

So annoying. In 1947, the Legislature passed the Wilson-Pakula Act, which barred candidates from running in primaries unless they had joined the party before the previous general election, or were given permission by party leaders. The law was meant to ban party outsiders from being able to run in primaries. In practice, it allows party officials to give a candidate who isn’t in the party permission to run on the party line. In 2008, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a registered independent, received a Wilson-Pakula to run on the Republican line. At the Working Families Party convention this past Saturday, the party designated Kenny Schaeffer as a placeholder candidate for the attorney general. However, it issued Wilson-Pakula certificates to New York City Public Advocate Letitia James and Zephyr Teachout, allowing them to be on the party’s November ballot line. James and Teachout are both running in the Democratic primary for attorney general, and if one of them wins that primary, Schaeffer will step aside so that either one of them will be the WFP’s nominee.

Wait, wait, wait. A person can be on more than one party line in New York?

Yep. It’s an archaic practice popularized in the 19th century known as “fusion voting,” which allows a candidate to appear on more than one party line, and has been outlawed in most states. This brings us back to Wilson-Pakula: If a person registered with a minor party wants to run in, say, the Democratic primary without changing affiliation, he or she needs permission from party officials.

Could a person be on infinite ballot lines?

Well, there aren’t exactly infinite parties. There are currently eight recognized parties in the state: the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, the Conservative Party, the Independence Party, the Green Party, the Working Families Party, the Women’s Equality Party, and the Reform Party. The Working Families Party typically cross-endorses with Democrats, as does the Women’s Equality Party. The Conservative, Independence and Reform Parties often cross-endorse with Republicans, although not always. Cuomo has been endorsed by the Independence Party in all three of his gubernatorial elections. The Reform Party just endorsed Democratic state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli for re-election. The Conservative Party is known for cross-endorsing with Democrats in Suffolk County. In certain circumstances, such as judicial elections, even the Republican and Democratic parties will cross-endorse.

Can a person create a new party?

Yes, through the independent nomination process. The candidate would have to obtain 15,000 signatures from registered voters to get on the ballot line with their newly created party. In order for this new party to survive and receive automatic ballot access in the state, a candidate for governor needs to receive at least 50,000 votes on that line, thus ensuring that the party will be on the ballot for the next four years, through the next state election. Cuomo created the Women’s Equality Party in 2014 and received over 50,000 votes on that line, establishing the party at least through this year’s statewide election.