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Breaking free from the Independence Party

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The Monroe County Board of Elections has yet to certify the results of last week's election, but one thing is certain: The Independence Party line barely made a dent in most of the races in which it surfaced.

That's something to celebrate.

Make no mistake, the two-party system is outdated. Polls show most Americans want a major third party. Heck, throw in a fourth or a fifth if they stand for something.

Therein lies the problem with the Independence Party. The party brands itself as "a centrist and pragmatic political party" that supports candidates who operate outside the influence of traditional political party hierarchies and special interests.

But its actions suggest it stands for little more than its own survival; an existence its leaders perpetuate by endorsing any candidate they think can win. 

The party has endorsed candidates as disparate as Governor Andrew Cuomo, a liberal Democrat, and former House Representative Chris Collins, a conservative Republican. They operate outside traditional political party hierarchies and special interests?

There are 20,450 registered Independence Party voters in Monroe County. They account for 4.5 percent of all voters and, together, make the party the third largest in the county. The next largest, the Conservative Party, has 7,850 enrollees.

But there's reason to believe most Independence Party members don't even know they're members. Many who sign up with the party think they're enrolling as an "independent" – with a small 'i' – and are unaffiliated with any party.

That was what the New York Daily News found in 2012 when it interviewed 200 party members and found 169 of them — 85 percent — thought they had registered as "independent."

The party survives on confusion. It is a byproduct of New York's archaic system of so-called "fusion voting," which allows a candidate's name to appear on several party lines. 

Part of the problem is the party's misleading name. State law forbids party names from including terms like "American," "United States," "National," and "Empire State," because they imply associations that are deceiving.

Legislation to add "Independence" to that list has been floated in Albany but gone nowhere because too many politicians covet the line.   

On Election Day, 119 candidates for offices in Monroe County – from the county executive to town clerks and village trustees – had the Independence Party line in addition to a major party designation. The line wasn't a factor in at least 115 of those races.

In Rush, the Democratic slate for supervisor and town board won narrowly with the Independence Party line being good for more than the margin of victory. In Penfield, the line appears to have made the difference for a Republican town board candidate.

Recall that both candidates for Monroe County executive – incumbent Cheryl Dinolfo and her challenger Adam Bello – went to court over the Independence Party designation.

Neither sought the line because they're "Independents" or "independents" or "Independence." She's a Republican. He's a Democrat.  They wanted the line to bolster their visibility on the ballot and appeal to voters who identify as "independent."

They squared off in a primary that Dinolfo won. It didn't pay off for her in the general election.

Although she garnered more votes on the line than she did when she won her first term in 2015, the weight of the line this year accounted for a meager 3 percent of her votes compared to 6 percent four years ago.

Unfortunately, the Independence Party will be a presence until at least 2022. Any party needs 50,000 votes in a governor's race to stay on the ballot for the next four years, and the Independence Party got it when Gov. Andrew Cuomo accepted its endorsement in 2018.

He could have rejected it and starved the party. But he wanted the line.  

Any sign that the line's influence is waning is a good thing, though. It could mean voters are waking up from their slumber party and realizing the Independence Party is distorting the political process.

Next time you see the line on the ballot, ignore it and borrow a line from Pat Paulsen, the late comedian and founder of the satirical Straight Talking American Government (S.T.A.G.) Party: "I've upped my standards. Now, up yours."  

David Andreatta is CITY's editor. He can be reached at dandreatta@rochester-citynews.com.