New York Republican and Conservative party leaders took a victory lap this week after they successfully defeated three constitutional ballot measures that would have altered the redistricting process and expanded voting rights. The propositions’ failure at the polls comes after a statewide campaign that was ubiquitous in the final weeks before the election -- everywhere except in New York City.
In a strategy that seemed to catch Democrats and voting rights advocates asleep at the switch, the “Just Say No” campaign blanketed airwaves in markets outside New York City, coupled with lawn signs, digital outreach, and non-stop media appearances as part of the aggressive program to defeat the referendums. The result was propositions 1, 3 and 4 -- related to redistricting, same-day voter registration and no-excuse absentee ballots, respectively -- all failed, as warring Democrats now point fingers at each other over the lack of any coordinated response to support their passage.
Read More: The Five Ballot Proposals Explained
With the fight to secure voting rights roiling across the country, this outcome in New York did not happen in a vacuum. The effort to restrict access to the ballot has been an organizing principle for Republicans across the country since the 2020 general election, with traditionally red states like Texas enacting extreme new measures.
“What's absolutely clear is that democracy is under a well-funded, organized attack across the country, and now that attack has come to New York,” said Susan Lerner, head of Common Cause New York, a nonpartisan advocacy group and one of the organizations that has pushed for election reforms in the state.
New York’s results were met with high praise from GOP leaders in Washington, D.C., as Senate Republicans on Wednesday blocked another piece of voting rights legislation that was pushed by Democrats, this time the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.
“Same-day registration, and no-excuse absentee voting on the ballot in New York yesterday and as of the latest tally, both of the proposals are losing,” said U.S. Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, from the Senate floor on Wednesday. “Even in deep blue New York, citizens seem to be rejecting the Democrats’ demands for weaker elections,” he added.
The “Just Say No” campaign was strategic and well-funded. New York Republican Party Chairman Nick Langworthy toured the state in the final weeks before the election making dozens of media appearances, while the New York State Conservative Party Chairman Gerard Kassar said his organization sunk north of $3 million on issue ads.
A report from Ad Impact, a data analytics firm that tracks political spending, which captures only the media ad buys, shows the NYS Conservative party spent more than $2 million in markets outside New York City, where ad time is also cheaper, compared to just half a million dollars in the city and its vicinity.
The direct result was rallying voters upstate where the ballot measures lost by greater numbers while at the same time flying more under the radar in the city where the opposition could have energized supporters of the initiatives. All three initiatives passed in the city, but by smaller margins than they were defeated in other parts of the state where the campaign was active, based on the unofficial results posted by the New York State Board of Elections.
Kassar said the Conservative Party began raising money in late August to support their fight against the three ballot props. While he would not say who donated to their effort, he insisted “thousands” of names would show up on their disclosure filing due January 15th, 2022. Asked directly if Ronald Lauder, the billionaire businessman and deep-pocketed Republican donor, was among their benefactors, Kassar acknowledged that he has been a longtime supporter of the party.
The ads, which once again raise the spectre of voter fraud without explanation, were developed by Nelson Warfield, who served as press secretary on Senator Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign and works as a Republican strategist out of the D.C area. Warfield could not be reached for comment.
Kassar said the ads began running the evening of October 20th, just three days before the start of early voting in the general election, which gave Democrats nearly two weeks to respond. But the onslaught was met with very little.
“I think the Democratic party is in chaos right now,” said Kassar, pointing to the growing field of candidates running for governor and other offices. “They are having a difficult time focusing on what they need to do and frankly, we didn't plan our campaign around their problems,” he said.
Those problems could be diagnosed both internally and externally. Inside the Democratic party, those angered by the ballot proposition failures point to organizational dysfunction, while those outside the party seeking funding from donors who support these issues found apathy.
The only money that was spent to support the ballot initiatives came from the State Senate Democratic Campaign committee, which put $327,000 towards supporting the questions. State Assembly Democrats did not respond to a request for comment.
The State Democratic Party didn’t spend money to support the initiatives, something that Democratic Party Chairman Jay Jacobs defends. “The state party is not the entity that is involved in advancing ballot initiatives or candidacies,” he said.
Jacobs said his job is to ensure the party’s infrastructure, including its voter database, is reliable and up to date. He added that if any of his party chairs in the state’s 62 counties told him the “Just Say No” campaign was threatening the ballot initiatives, or rallying Republican voters to come out in greater numbers, he would have responded.
“No one called me, no one called the state party and said we have a problem,” Jacobs said.
Still others within the party point to Jacobs’ leadership style as its own problem. Several Democratic officials are pushing for a reckoning with the removal of Jacobs as state party leader as part of the course correction.
“I am almost four years in this seat, representing this district,” said State Senator Alessandra Biaggi who represents parts of the Bronx and Westchester County and has been openly critical of Jacobs’ leadership, and, “I have never met Jay Jacobs or spoken to him on the phone,” she said.
“The phone rings in two directions,” Jacobs replied when asked directly about Biaggi’s comment. “It’s not my role to call all 63 senators and 108 Assembly people and converse with them,” he added, noting that he takes calls from anyone who reaches out to him.
The finger-pointing within the party also meant there was no one leading a coordinated response to the “Just Say No” campaign. Lerner, who rallied advocates to push for passage of the same-day voter registration and no excuse absentee ballot bills when they were still in the state legislature, said she tried to secure funding from donors to address what she said was misinformation from the other side. But she was met with apathy.
“What we found was a lack of urgency, of complacency, and a focus on national races instead of what's happening in our own backyard,” said Lerner. “As we've seen repeatedly over the last several years, people take for granted that American democracy will survive no matter what,” she added, pointing to the failure of these ballot initiatives as evidence that nothing can be taken for granted.
For supporters of the voting rights amendments, it is back to the drawing board. The proposals will need to pass through two consecutive legislative sessions, which means the soonest the measures could go before voters again is 2023.