One minor political party is fighting to remain on the ballot in New York, but its efforts — and those of other alternatives to the Democratic and Republican parties — were dealt a severe blow this week.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday upheld a lower court's ruling, rejecting a challenge to New York's new ballot qualification rules. The Serve American Movement (also known as the SAM Party) claimed the rule change, which increased the number of votes political parties need in order to qualify for the ballot, violated its members' First and Fourteenth amendment rights.
Democracy reform advocates argue limiting ballot access for third parties only perpetuates polarization and the two-party duopoly in America. The share of voters who don't identify with either major party has trended upward over the past two decades and is expected to continue to grow.
Last April, New York increased the vote share political parties must receive in order to qualify for the ballot, to 130,000 votes or 2 percent of the overall ballots cast in presidential and gubernatorial elections. State officials say this higher threshold will help declutter the ballot and prevent voter confusion. Previously, political parties only needed to secure 50,000 votes every four years to qualify.
The SAM Party became an officially recognized political party in New York after its gubernatorial ticket received 55,000 votes in 2018. The minor party describes itself as "a new kind of candidate-focused, process-driven political party, rather than one predicated on shared substantive policy positions or ideologies."
With its status in jeopardy, the SAM Party decided to challenge the state's rule change in federal court, arguing it violates the U.S. Constitution.
But in September the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled that it "failed to demonstrate that allowing the amended party qualification requirements to take effect would violate their Constitutional rights, otherwise cause irreparable harm to the plaintiffs, or be against the public interest."
The SAM Party appealed this ruling but the 2nd Circuit affirmed the district court's ruling.
"We hold that Appellants are not likely to succeed on the merits of their First Amendment claim because the burden imposed by the presidential-election requirement is not severe and justified by the State's interest in uncluttered ballots, effective electoral competition, and the preservation of resources dedicated to public financing of elections," the court's three-judge panel wrote in the opinion.
Because the SAM Party chose not to participate in the 2020 election, it failed to meet the new qualifications. Only two minor parties in New York state, the Conservative Party and the Working Families Party, retained their statuses following last year's election.
David Jolly, executive chairman of the SAM Party, said the party is evaluating its next legal move and has not given up its plans to again become a credible party in the state.
"Fundamentally for New Yorkers it's a sad day for democracy because what the governor and the legislature have done is they've cut down on choices for New Yorkers," said Michael Volpe, chairman of SAM New York.
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A unique power that New Jersey gives local partisan officials, to design primary ballots giving preferential treatment to favored candidates, is being challenged in a lawsuit as an unconstitutional form of political discrimination.
The federal claim, filed Monday by six defeated politicians and a consortium of progressive groups, offers an unusual twist on one of the prevailing complaints from the good-government movement: The people who run the two major parties have way too much power to repel the sort of outsider or insurgent candidates who would be more committed to fixing the system.
This may be nowhere more true than in New Jersey, where the Democratic and Republican party bosses in the 21 counties have an exceptional ability to steer election outcomes.
Endorsements from these local political machines come with a tangible and enormous benefit. The primary ballots are designed so the blessed legislative and other down-ballot candidates appear on what's known as "the county line" — generally the first column, directly under the names of the party's incumbents or best-known candidates for statewide offices including governor or senator.
Sometimes, the county bosses put their endorsed candidate in one column and all the others in a separate column, causing confusion and double-voiding that results in the ballot being tossed.
A study of last year's primaries by Rutgers sociologist Julia Sass Rubin, focused on congressional candidates who got the preferred treatment in some counties but not others, concluded the county line boosted a politician's vote share by an astonishing (and very often dispositive) 35 percent.
Working assiduously to secure the county line is almost certainly a major reason why no incumbent state legislator has lost a primary in the state since 2009.
The suit wants federal Judge Freda Wolfson of Newark to order the counties to design their primary ballots like almost all the others in the country, with all candidates for a particular office grouped together. It alleges the current system violates the free speech and equal protection rights of the disfavored candidates.
State party bosses, who have been fighting an earlier version of the suit since last summer, say the power over the ballot design is within their discretion.
"This antiquated practice is truly indefensible," countered Sue Altman, who runs New Jersey Working Families, one of the plaintiffs. "If we learned anything over the last four years, it's that our democracy is fragile and requires a vigorous effort to maintain. This expansive coalition is fighting to make democracy stronger in New Jersey. Up and down the state advocates agree: It is long past time for real, competitive primary elections. Our democracy is at stake. This is a matter of equity and whose voice counts."
"New Jersey's use of the line is a voter suppression tactic, used to pre-determine election outcomes and diminish the voice of voters," said Jesse Burns, executive director of the state League of Women Voters chapter.
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