Rules Change Will Pose Obstacle For Independence Party

New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. EXPRESS FILE

Thanks to a provision slipped into the 2019 state budget by Governor Andrew Cuomo, the chances of a candidate’s name appearing under the Independence Party line, long a staple on East End ballots, will be much more difficult this November.

That’s because parties now have to receive the higher of 230,000 votes or 2 percent of the total votes cast in the most recent presidential or gubernatorial election to qualify for a ballot spot, according to New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., who is also the chairman of the Southampton Independence Party. In the past, minor parties only needed to receive 50,000 votes in statewide elections, he said.

The loss of an automatic ballot line comes into play locally as political parties begin the process of putting together their slates for upcoming town elections. Independence Party nominations have been seen as valuable to Democratic and Republican candidates seeking to appeal to unaffiliated voters.

“The root of this was the governor’s fight with the Working Families Party for endorsing Cynthia Nixon’s run against him,” Mr. Thiele said.

Ms. Nixon, an actress who appeared in the popular series “Sex in the City,” was trounced in the Democratic primary in 2018 — but in an ironic twist, the Working Families Party was the only one of several minor parties to qualify for continued ballot access.

Joining the Independence Party on the sidelines will be the Libertarian, Green, and Serving America Movement parties.

Mr. Thiele said although those parties will not have automatic ballot access, candidates seeking to run on those lines in local races can still do so. But they will have to obtain far more signatures on their nominating petitions than they would if they were representing a recognized party.

As an example, he said a candidate who might ordinarily have to collect only 150 signatures might now be required to collect 1,200 to qualify in Southampton and would likely want to collect several hundred more to survive challenges.

“In short, it’s a difficult and perilous process,” he said, “made harder by COVID.”

However, Frank Mackay, who is the Independence Party chairman for both New York State and Suffolk County, said he did not see a problem for the party this year. In a message that he sent to party members, Mr. Mackay wrote, “The difference this year is that the petition process is simpler due to the fact that any registered voter can sign to qualify an endorsed candidate.” In the past, only Independence Party members could sign petitions for the party’s candidates.

He said he expected the party would field slates of candidates in local races across the state this year.

That was the message Elaine Jones, chairwoman of the East Hampton Town Independence Party, said she received.

“I’ve been told to get my candidates together,” she said on Tuesday. Although she acknowledged candidates would need more signatures this year, she added, “The difference is I can stand in front of the post office and ask any registered voter to sign.”

Mr. Mackay acknowledged the party would face a steeper climb before the 2022 gubernatorial race when the “ballot access process is significantly more difficult for qualifying statewide candidates,” although he did not offer details.

“The Independence Party of New York is confident that we will field well-funded, respected and recognized candidates for all statewide offices in 2022,” he added. “Our party sees this moment as a ‘reset’ and we look forward to having a more simplified road to the ballot in local and statewide races for decades to come.”

But Mr. Thiele said he had concerns about the party’s future viability. “As politics has become more and more divisive, there is less and less of a lane for parties like the Independence Party,” he said. “I ran for supervisor and created an independent party in the 1990s. You could never do that today because there just aren’t enough people who will leave the major parties.”

He said even if the party qualified to appear on the ballot in 2022, it would have to continue to meet the 230,000-vote threshold.

The Independence Party has had its share of success on the East End, backing a number of successful candidates over the years such as Mr. Thiele, former Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst, and current Supervisor Jay Schneiderman.

But over the past decade, the party has come under some criticism for the personal role Mr. Mackay has played in nominating some candidates over others. Such was the case in 2013 when Zachary Cohen won the East Hampton Independence Party’s nomination to challenge incumbent Republican supervisor Bill Wilkinson only to have the county party intercede and give the nomination to Mr. Wilkinson, who later won a second term by a handful of votes.

Mr. Mackay also gave the Independence Party endorsement to Republican incumbent John Kennedy when he faced a challenge for his county comptroller’s seat from Mr. Schneiderman.

Although he was jilted by the party, Mr. Schneiderman said it would be premature to announce its death.

“There is a very strong movement in this country toward a third party — something in the middle,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised in two years to see it back on the ballot.”

The Independence Party’s plight does not have the sympathy of Gordon Herr, the chairman of the Southampton Town Democratic Committee, which has seen its fortunes rise over the past few election cycles.

Because New York is one of the few states to allow fusion voting, in which candidates are allowed to run on multiple lines, he said minor parties play an outsized role in elections.

“It’s the tail wagging the dog,” he said. “They can run their own candidates on their own line. We don’t need them.”