NY: Majority of Voters Cast Ballots for Third Party Candidates in Mayoral Election

At Ballot Access News, Richard Winger draws attention to a noteworthy result from the recent special mayoral election in Rochester, New York: a majority of voters cast their ballots for third party candidates.  From BAN:
Rochester, New York, held a special partisan election for Mayor on March 29, 2011. The official results have been released. They are: Thomas S. Richards, Democrat, 49.05%; William A. Johnson, 32.03% on the Working Families line and another 10.18% on the Independence Party line; and Alexander J. White, Green Party, 8.74%.
This was a special election to fill the seat vacated by former Mayor Robert Duffy, who was elected to the position of Lieutenant Governor of New York as current Governor Andrew Cuomo's running mate in 2010.  Thomas Richards, who won the special election on the Democratic ballot line, briefly served as Deputy and interim Mayor after being appointed to the position, from which he quickly resigned in order to run in the special election.  Richards was opposed by former Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson, who was the first African American elected to that position, which he held from 1994 to 2005.  Johnson is a Democrat, but after the Democrats nominated Richards, he ran with the support of the Working Families Party and the Independence Party.  New York has a fusion voting system in which multiple parties are allowed to nominate the same candidate for a given office.  The upstart campaign of Green Party candidate Alex White was viewed as a relative success by third party activists.  Independent Political Report observed:
although he lost, Green mayoral candidate Alex White ran a strong campaign, building up his own reputation and that of the Green Party in Monroe County, New York.
From a local media report relayed by IPR:
While he won’t rule out another campaign in the future, White was quick to say, “I would hope that thre are other candidates that are as strong or stronger than me running on the Green Party line in the future.”
The percentage-results from the mayoral election are revealing, but they do not tell the whole story.  According to the Monroe County Board of Elections, only 25,726 voters cast a ballot in the contest.    Unfortunately, eligible voter and registered voter statistics for the city are not readily available online, but, contacted via phone, Maureen Dauphinee from the county board of elections says "turnout was 27% based on 25,726 voters out of 95,269 eligible to participate in the City of Rochester Special Mayoral Election on March 29, 2011."  Thus, Democrat Thomas Richards won the election with the support of just 13% of eligible voters!  Every mayor of Rochester since 1974 has been a Democrat, so it is not surprising that the GOP would not have run a candidate in the special election.

The Democratic and Republican parties thrive on low voter turnout in non-competitive elections, understanding the latter as elections in which there is only one major party candidate, or in which there is virtually no contest between the candidates of the major parties.  What the mayoral election in Rochester shows is that these two conditions provide a strategic opening for third party and independent candidates.  The race could have been won with the support of just one out of six eligible voters.  The question is: how does one mobilize non-voters who have been brow-beaten into unquestioningly accepting Republican-Democrat party rule, probably even against their better judgment in a large number of cases? 

The ideological prison guards of the two-party state and duopoly system of government never tire of reiterating the argument which states that alternatives to the Democrats and Republicans just cannot win.  "Like it or not, it's a two-party system," they say, ignoring the fact that in many, if not most districts, the two-party system long ago degenerated into a one-party affair.

In many Republican-leaning districts, the Democratic party is not seen as a viable alternative to the GOP; similarly, in many Democrat-leaning districts, the Republican party is not seen as a viable alternative to the Democrats.  In such cases, third party and independent candidates literally represent the only alternative to one-party rule.  The Rochester mayoral election proves the point: a majority of voters cast their votes on a third party ballot line.


TiradeFaction said...

It's probably worth pointing out that the Working Families party is generally a co opted Democratic Party machine, but perhaps in this locality they're more independent (They did run against the Democrat after all)

"Like it or not, it's a two-party system,"

Like it or not, that's a delusion perpetrated by the media and the parties alike ;)

d.eris said...

heh. No, you are right about the Working Familes Party, and, as I understand it, the WFP tends to be rather less independent from the Dems in upstate and western NY than downstate. I'd be interested to hear Sam Wilson's take on this, as he's a consistent critic of the WFP's dem-dependence.

TiradeFaction said...

Who's Sam Wilson? Don't think I've heard of him..though he does sound (vaguely) familiar.

It's funny, how in many districts, it's what Stephen Hill calls "One party fiefdoms" A lot of Americans really don't realize how restricted their choices really are.

d.eris said...

Sam is based in upstate NY, writes at the Think 3 Institute and comments here on occasion. If you're not familiar with Think 3, it's definitely worth checking out on the regular.

One party fiefdom sounds about right.

TiradeFaction said...

Thanks, I'll check him out.

Stephen Hill is a pretty cool author. He's written some great stuff on American politics, our electoral system, and his travels to other nations in general. I'd recommend you check out his books (and stuff online) whole heartily.

d.eris said...

Yes, thanks, I just looked him up, wasn't really familiar with him before.

Pete Healey said...

Since Johnson is a Democrat, voting for him on the Working Families Party line isn't really a vote for a "third party candidate". He's a Democrat!
The Working Families Party is completely bought into the Democratic Party at all levels and there is little difference between the party in New York City and upstate. In about 1% of all races (apparently this one included) there is a contest between the "mainstream" Democrat and the "left-wing" Democrat. In the end it doesn't advance the "third party movement" even a single inch.

d.eris said...

Point taken Pete, but the situation is still somewhat different from, say, potential situations under the top two system in California, where the choice could come down to two candidates from the same party. Johnson wasn't the Democratic party candidate.

TiradeFaction said...

That reminds me of what happened in Oakland recently, when IRV was introduced the "left wing" Democrat beat the "Centrist" Democrat, which then the "Centrist" Democrat railed against IRV (which he previously supported) because he didn't win lol.

But back on topic, it seems the fusion voting system in NY gives birth to a lot of "Fake" Third Parties, if I may say so...

d.eris said...

During the 2009 mayoral election, the Green Party candidate, Rev. Billy, argued again and again that the Democratic-Republican duopoly has its shadow in the third party camp with the Working Families and Independence Party duopoly. What has happened with these groups (and we can add in the Conservative party here as well), is that they often trade their independence for influence. If they can endorse a popular candidate from a major party but convince people to vote for that person on their ballot line, then they can jump over the various ballot access hurdles more easily than if they had run their own candidate.

Despite its faults (which in many cases are the faults of the individual parties rather than the system itself), I still strongly support the fusion system. It allows voters the possibility of at least nominally expressing some amount of independence from the major parties in the voting booth.

It has greatly helped the Independent Party of Oregon since it was implemented there.

d.eris said...

note: that was the 2009 mayoral election in NYC, which Bloomberg eventually won as an Independent.