There will likely be a new ballot line in Suffolk County and the rest of New York State as a result of last month’s election: the elimination of several minor parties that have for many years automatically gained ballot presence.
There is litigation pending in federal court to overturn this. But legal experts we’ve spoken to say the litigation — brought by the Libertarian and Green Parties — is unlikely to succeed. And if it doesn’t, they and the Independence Party will lose automatic ballot presence. They can get back on the ballot through a petition process, but this is difficult, especially on a statewide basis.
The cause for the change is new ballot access rules passed by the New York State Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. He’s been reported to have been a key force behind the new rules.
For decades, minor parties in New York State needed 50,000 votes in the gubernatorial race held every four years to maintain automatic ballot access. But the new rules require minor parties to each secure either 130,000 votes or 2% of the votes cast every two years in the races for governor or president.
In last month’s election, only the Conservative Party and Working Families Party got enough votes to meet this threshold.
What has happened has special consequences for Suffolk County. The Independence Party has many members, especially here, although there are those in politics who believe it is because some people think enrolling in it signifies their being independent, not a member of a party.
There are 46,437 enrolled members of the Independence Party in Suffolk, well-outnumbering enrollees here in the Conservative Party (22,279) and Working Families Party (4,176). And there is a strong hold by Suffolk figures on the leadership of the Independence Party, founded in 1991. The state Independence Party chairperson since 2000 has been Frank MacKay of Rocky Point, who is also Suffolk Independence Party leader. He was preceded as state Independence Party chairperson by Jack Essenberg of Miller Place, who was also its Suffolk leader.
Also, the only public official on the state level who is an Independence Party member is from Suffolk: Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. of Sag Harbor. He’s also Independence Party chairperson of Southampton Town. However, he caucuses and runs with Democratic Party cross-endorsement. So, if there is no Independence line, the next time Mr. Thiele is up for election, in 2022, he can run on the Democratic ticket. His district includes Shelter Island.
The litigation which challenges the new rules on the basis of constitutionality was brought in July in U.S. District Court-Southern District in Manhattan.
Gov. Cuomo has been reported to have pushed for the new rules because of his friction through the years with the Working Families Party, which is to the left of his centrist stance within the Democratic Party. He denies this. In any event, if his aim was bumping the Working Families Party off the New York ballot, it didn’t work. It survived the new rules.
Also, as a result of last month’s election, there will likely be litigation, affecting Suffolk only, involving the wording and legality of what was titled Proposition 2 on the ballot here.
It was a vote on allowing $44 million to be transferred from the county’s Sewer Stabilization Reserve Fund to a Taxpayer Trust Fund that can be tapped to finance general county operations. And, it would allow the county to not have to pay back $145 million it took earlier from the sewer fund for county operations. That transfer was contested in a successful earlier lawsuit brought by the Long Island Pine Barrens Society in state Supreme Court.
The sewer fund is not only structured to stabilize sewer taxes but can be utilized to fund septic upgrades. It’s part of the county’s Drinking Water Protection Program created by voters in a 1987 referendum. It also provides money for land preservation and water quality. It is funded by a quarter cent of every dollar collected through the Suffolk sales tax.
“The county is trying to raid your Drinking Water Protection Fund again,” charged the Pine Barrens Society in the weeks leading up to the election. It urged a “no” vote. “They’ve carefully worded the proposition in a way that disguises what they are actually doing,” it declared.
Proposition 2, which received a narrow majority vote — 348,357 to 301,407 — was advanced and promoted by Suffolk Executive Steve Bellone amidst county government being in big financial trouble. Suffolk County government, according to a report by its COVID-19 Fiscal Impact Task Force, is facing a $1.5 billion economic shortfall between this year and 2022. This could be moderated if it receives significant federal aid. The wording of Proposition 2 was indeed problematic, asking voters to approve “A Charter Law to Transfer Excess Funds in the Sewer Assessment Stabilization Fund…”
Seeing that word “Excess,” did voters know exactly what they were voting on?