Democrats vs. Republicans – that’s how most states draw their battle lines at election time each year.
But not New York. Its “fusion voting” system, which allows major party candidates to simultaneously appear on minor lines, encourages Democratic and Republican mischief in minor parties like Conservative and Independence. Now fusion’s unique influence may be reflected in Erie County as much as anywhere in the state, as Democrats face accusations of interference, manipulation and gaming the system for their own advantage.
And though “everybody does it” will again emerge as the official excuse, complaints aimed at Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner are hitting home just as he and his state party call for ending New York’s fusion system.
“It’s hypocritical,” said Erie County Conservative Chairman Ralph C. Lorigo, who blames Zellner for meddling in his party. “On one hand they say one thing and on the other it’s something else.”
Major party leaders offer their own claims of hypocrisy by noting that fusion voting allows the very existence of minor parties in New York.
Still, the quirks of fusion voting are manifesting themselves in two ways this year:
• County executive contest: Grace A. Christiansen, who is 24 years old and lives in Lakeview, emerged last month as a contender in the Independence primary against Lynne M. Dixon, the Independence member backed by Republicans against County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, the Democratic incumbent.
Dixon and Republicans claim Democrats orchestrated Christiansen’s candidacy to cause as much political chaos as possible.
• “Opportunities to ballot” in town elections: Lorigo says Democrats are using an obscure election law provision to circulate petitions for the ability to write in their favored candidate. The chairman says the Democrats are trying to deny the often important Conservative line by inserting their own choices into a minor primary against those backed by party leaders, and that it occurred in at least 17 contests – mostly on the town level.
“Will that person ever really campaign and raise money?” he asked. “No. You’ll have a person who will never do one thing to be elected.”
Any voter can write in a candidate. But Lorigo explained major party members can petition for an opportunity to ballot on a minor line, often in orchestrated efforts. He noted that if Democratic operatives carrying petitions obtain enough signatures to force an opportunity to ballot, the party can sponsor a mail campaign urging votes for its own favored write-in candidate and deprive the major party candidate of the minor line.
Often major party leaders will persuade loyal members to re-register with a minor party for such tactics. Occasionally, they work.
“Minor parties rarely have primaries,” Lorigo said. “So if they can move 10 people from Democrat to Conservative, it only takes a few votes in primaries to steal the line.”
For Dixon, Christiansen’s Independence effort presents a significant challenge. A political neophyte and registered nurse who works at John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital, Christiansen emerged as an Independence candidate after a 23-year-old Williamsville resident named Rachel L. Obenauer (who also popped up in last year’s Independence primary against then-Republican Assemblyman Raymond W. Walter) originally filed for the line.
But state Independence leaders (there is no local party committee) substituted Christiansen when Obenauer declined the nomination. Now Christiansen says she is running after a friend broached the idea, denying any contact with Democrats about her candidacy.
“She has been bought by the Republicans,” Christiansen said of Dixon. “I’m running to give Lynne Dixon some competition.”
Still, Christiansen acknowledged she has no plans for an active campaign.
Republicans backing Dixon on their major party line say they recognize the hand of Zellner (who is also Erie County’s Democratic elections commissioner) in the original Obenauer candidacy. They note that board employees under Zellner (including Poloncarz’s brother, Rob) helped circulate designating petitions for her.
Dixon, meanwhile, continues to insist that Democrats are orchestrating the Independence primary to divert her focus on Poloncarz. She says Zellner never denied activity in her party’s primary, and that he promised a substitute candidate when Obenauer declined the Independence nomination.
“We should just call this what it is,” she said, “I’m running against Mark Poloncarz in the Independence primary.”
Zellner did not return several calls seeking comment, but in recent weeks he and Poloncarz staffers have insisted they are playing by current rules while supporting reform of the system.
“This is the gamesmanship that fusion voting brings,” Zellner said in April.
Poloncarz Chief of Staff Jennifer L. Hibit also pointed in April to Republican legislative candidates running on minor party lines as evidence of how elections are conducted in New York. She noted that Independence candidates are often GOP allies.
“This, unfortunately, is the game that is fusion voting,” she said. “Don’t hate the player; hate the game.”
But Dixon notes the Democratic State Committee earlier this year resolved to end the practice and Zellner has for years proven outspoken in his opposition to fusion.
”I think it’s a bit hypocritical to say you are against fusion voting and then pull out every ploy and play there is,” she said. “That’s fine. We’ll be successful in the primary in June.”