Some third parties see victory in defeat

Many third parties either lost or gained ballot access. Here’s how that will reshape NY politics.

Stephanie Miner, Larry Sharpe and Howie Hawkins.

Stephanie Miner, Larry Sharpe and Howie Hawkins. Adela Loconte/Shutterstock

No minor party in New York won more than a small fraction of total votes cast in the 2018 election, but that has not stopped parties on the edges of the state political landscape from staking important claims to electoral relevancy moving forward.

Gubernatorial candidates from the Green Party, Libertarian Party, Working Families Party and the Serve America Movement all exceeded the 50,000-vote threshold the parties each need to secure automatic ballot access for the next four years, giving them a critical boost towards becoming legitimate threats to two-party dominance. But not all third parties were so lucky. The Reform Party and the Women’s Equality Party fell short – although leaders for both parties told City & State that they will likely not officially disband.

Parties that receive more than 50,000 votes in a gubernatorial race become recognized parties in New York, meaning they can nominate statewide candidates without collecting signatures. Candidates for legislative offices also face fewer hurdles to getting on the ballot.

Third parties did not appear to have had a decisive effect on any races in New York state this year – even though a MAGA-hat wearing Reform Party candidate in the 27th Congressional District Race did receive more votes than the difference separating incumbent Rep. Chris Collins and Democratic challenger Nate McMurray. The overall election results however could have some effect on state politics moving forward.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo received enough votes on the Working Families Party ballot line to ensure that the party will remain an important force in progressive politics, especially in Democratic primaries where the party’s support has fueled past insurgents such as Cynthia Nixon, Zephyr Teachout and Jumaane Williams. The Independence Party also retained its ballot access through its support of Cuomo. But the biggest winner among the losers on election night was Green Party gubernatorial candidate Howie Hawkins who came in third behind Cuomo and Republican Marc Molinaro – enough votes for the Greens to keep ballot access and remain a force on the fringes of state politics. The Conservative Party meanwhile also retained ballot access through the 238,578 votes that Molinaro received on its ballot line.

What’s unclear is what will happen with the two parties that won ballot access this year, and the two parties that lost it. The Libertarians and the Serve America Movement now have a lot of work ahead of them if they want to realize their stated ambitions to dramatically alter local, state and federal politics. In contrast, the Reform Party and the Women’s Equality Party have to prove that they can survive crushing defeats this year.

Here’s where things stand for these four parties:

Libertarian Party

The Libertarians fielded a spirited candidate in Larry Sharpe, who raised about a half million dollars and nearly came in third in the gubernatorial race. Though he fell a few thousand votes behind the Green Party’s Howie Hawkins, the Libertarian Marine Corps veteran did get nearly twice the votes he needed to get his party ballot access for the next four years. Now, the party’s plan is to win elections and Sharpe hopes, diminish the role of government in New York through radical measures. For example, Sharpe wants to abolish requirements that students attend the 11th and 12th grades of high school and labor laws, so that 16 year-olds can join the full-time workforce.

The party has some advantages compared to other third parties. Its national presence has increased in recent years, including the 2016 presidential campaign, when nominee Gary Johnson won nearly 4.5 million votes. Libertarians also benefit from having something to offer people on both sides of the political divide. Conservatives like its small-government approach to issues like taxes and gun rights, while some liberals appreciate the party’s support for individual liberty on issues like abortion rights and drug legalization. While it’s unlikely the party will win any state or federal races for years to come, there might be opportunities to win smaller races.

The party is focusing on local races moving forward as a way to increase its membership beyond the 8,000 or so New Yorkers who are currently affiliated with the party, Jim Rosenbeck, state chair of the Libertarian Party, told the Times Union. "It would be foolish to think we're going to compete in state legislative races in the next few years," he said. "We have to earn the trust of the people in New York, and that starts in their communities."

Serve America Movement

Former Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner was the first statewide candidate for the Serve America Movement, which was started by a bipartisan group of former political operatives unhappy with the two 2016 presidential candidates. Her bid to win the governor’s mansion as a third-party candidate was doomed from the start – she wasn’t even the highest vote-getter from Syracuse, Hawkins was – but she got just enough to get the party recognition in New York.

The Serve America Movement has four years to prove it stands for something beyond platitudes about creating a “new American majority.” Right now though, the party has not shared any specifics on how to do that. "There's no doubt we will continue the conversation about better politics and better results,” Miner told the Times Union. A representative from the state party did not elaborate any further than that. “SAM NY is just getting up and running,” a spokeswoman said in an email.

Reform Party

Losing ballot access was a big win, according to Bill Merrell, national and state chair of the Reform Party. He lost control of the New York branch of the party earlier this year after Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa staged a hostile takeover as he considered a gubernatorial run. Sliwa maintained his hold over the party despite a legal battle brought by Merrell. In any case, Sliwa ended up not running and the party cross-nominated Molinaro, who earned about 26,000 votes on the Reform Party line.

Now that party has lost its status as a recognized party, Merrell hopes that the “renegade” Sliwa will go away and the party can go back to its roots advocating for fiscal discipline. “In its own way, it is kind of bittersweet that we got the party back,” Merrell said. “We will gather our forces in the next four years and try to create a ballot line that can’t be stolen.”

Party leaders had an “online meeting” this past week and plans to have meetings in each state next year. Founder Ross Perot – who created the party to run for president in 1996 – has not been active in Reform Party politics for some years and will not be a part of the rebuilding process, Merrell said. “I wish he was 20 years younger,” he added.

Women’s Equality Party

The Women’s Equality Party has struggled to escape the shadow of Cuomo, who reportedly founded it in 2014 to troll the Working Families Party. Though 2018 was the year of #MeToo and an unprecedented number of women ran for office at the state and federal levels, that didn’t add up to much for the WEP. It chose to back men over women who are strong advocates of women’s rights in some races, most notably backing DuWayne Gregory over Liuba Grechen Shirley in a Long Island Democratic congressional primary earlier this year.

The party also endorsed Cuomo once again and received just over half of the votes it needed to maintain recognition in New York. Despite a lackluster presence in state politics, party Chair Susan Zimet said the party will probably not give up. “There’s not much I can say just yet,” Zimet said. “All I can say is the people on the state committee were very committed to the concept of women’s equality.” She was noncommittal on whether their work would necessarily continue to be done under the auspices of the party.

She is currently focused on writing a book and her day job as executive director of Hunger Action Network. “Do I personally want the party to continue?” she said. “I certainly want to see the work we do, winning women’s equality, continue.” She said that there will be a meeting of party leaders “probably before Christmas” to determine whether or not the party will continue and how it would lay the groundwork in the next four years to regain ballot access in 2022.