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Why New York's governor's race could be thrown into chaos tonight

Tim Wu is running for lieutenant governor in New York's primary Tuesday.
Tim Wu is running for lieutenant governor in New York's primary Tuesday.
Tim Wu

New York's voters go to the polls today to choose their parties' nominees for governor and lieutenant governor. In recent months, the current governor, Andrew Cuomo, has dealt with discontent among some progressive activists and reports that his administration is under investigation for interfering with an ethics commission.

As a result, Cuomo is facing a primary challenge from the left by Fordham law professor Zephyr Teachout. No public polls have been released of the race, but Cuomo's expected to win handily — so attention has focused instead on the lieutenant governor contest. There, Cuomo's chosen running mate, former US Rep. Kathy Hochul, is being challenged by Teachout's pick, Columbia law professor Tim Wu.

Wu has targeted Hochul for her conservative views on immigration and other issues, while criticizing Cuomo on ethics. The New York Times recently endorsed Wu, and the New York Post's Fred Dicker wrote about "growing signs" that Wu was "picking up momentum." In recent days, Cuomo enlisted Hillary Clinton to make a robocall promoting himself and Hochul.

While a Wu victory would be an symbolic achievement for progressive activists, and an embarrassment for Cuomo, New York's lieutenant governor has very few substantive powers (basically just casting tie-breaking votes in the Senate, and succeeding the governor if he vacates the office). Yet the state's unusual election rules mean that Wu's nomination could have major implications for Cuomo's general election campaign this fall.

First, in New York a candidate can be nominated by multiple parties, and listed multiple times on the ballot, on different "lines." Second, several minor parties are not holding primaries today, and instead are nominating Cuomo and Hochul uncontested. Third, and most importantly, as Ian Millhiser explained at ThinkProgress, New York's governor and lieutenant governor candidates aren't listed on the ballot separately, but as a pair — and the specific pair on the line that gets the most "votes cast jointly" wins the election. So New Yorkers could theoretically see a general election ballot that looks somewhat like this:

  • Democratic Party: Cuomo-Wu
  • Republican Party: Astorino-Moss
  • Working Families Party: Cuomo-Hochul
  • Independence Party: Cuomo-Hochul
  • Women's Equality Party: Cuomo-Hochul
The key problem for the governor is that Cuomo-Wu and Cuomo-Hochul would count as votes for different pairs, and would effectively split Cuomo's vote between two tickets. You might think the obvious solution is for Cuomo's campaign to ask supporters to concentrate their votes on just one line. But there's another catch — if a party's gubernatorial ticket fails to win 50,000 votes, that party will no longer automatically be listed on the ballot in future years. So minor parties really need to turn out voters for their respective tickets. If the Cuomo-Wu and Cuomo-Hochul votes are split enough, though, the Republican nominee Rob Astorino — viewed as a long-shot contender — could theoretically sneak to victory with a small plurality.

But as Dicker explained, Cuomo does apparently have a way out. If he nominates Hochul for a judgeship before September 16, she is permitted to take her name off the ballot — and Wu could be substituted in her place, ensuring Cuomo's vote isn't split. Such a move would no doubt be humiliating for the governor, and would again lead to criticism of him for using a nonpartisan state position for political purposes. But if Wu wins, it may be the best option he has left.

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