In October, the New York’s Republican and Conservative Parties went nuclear.
Eager to rally their bases in an off-year election, and concerned about ballot initiatives that they considered a threat, the parties devised a two-pronged offensive. The Conservative Party spent about $3 million, according to its chairman, on television and radio ads arguing that the initiatives were tantamount to corruption. Republicans mounted a whistle-stop “Just Say No” tour that traversed 40 counties in 10 days. By comparison, Democrats spent and did little.
At issue were three of five proposed constitutional amendments listed on the back of voters’ ballots. The first would have required that, for redistricting purposes, incarcerated New Yorkers be counted at their last place of residence. But the League of Women Voters of New York and the Conservative Party argued the measure would have also reduced the power of minority parties in the redistricting process.
Another proposal would have eliminated a rule requiring voters to register at least 10 days before an election, while yet another would have removed a rule requiring voters to provide an excuse — such as that they are leaving town or incapacitated — when requesting an absentee ballot.
All three measures failed on Election Day, according to The Associated Press.
Voters opposed the three proposals from Niagara County in Western New York to Nassau County on Long Island. They passed in four of New York City’s five boroughs, but not by particularly large margins. Many New York City voters did not vote on the ballot questions at all. Staten Island, as usual, was the odd borough out. All three measures failed there.
Two other ballot proposals fared better. One that passed would preserve in the State Constitution the “right to clean air, clean water, and a healthful environment.” Another that passed is meant to make courts run more efficiently by doubling the monetary limit for claims filed in New York City civil court.
But the defeat of the voting and redistricting proposals represented yet another blow for a Democratic Party reeling from electoral losses in New York and Virginia and an unexpectedly tight governor’s race in New Jersey.
Susan Lerner, the executive director of the civic watchdog group Common Cause New York and a proponent of all three initiatives, argued that the success of Republican and Conservative attacks highlighted the fragility of democracy itself.
“There was a strong anti-democratic push and the pro-democracy folks stayed home,” she said.
But for New York’s Republicans, the initiatives represented an electoral target that played on national Republican themes — unfounded fears of voter fraud in particular — to get out the vote in a year when no congressional or statewide seats were being contested.
“In a year like this, you don’t have a built-in turnout around New York because there was no statewide office,” said Nick Langworthy, the state Republican Party chairman. “What we had to do was rally our base.”
At the launch of the party’s “Just Say No” tour on Staten Island in October, Mr. Langworthy argued that the two voting-related ballot proposals “threaten our democracy” and were akin to “rolling out the red carpet for voter fraud.”
Twenty states offer same-day voter registration. All require proof of residency, which was not included in the proposed amendment.
Representative Nicole Malliotakis, a Republican who represents parts of Staten Island and Brooklyn, claimed at the appearance that Democrats hoped to “tilt the scale” in their favor, tying their efforts to a national voting rights bill and warning of ballot harvesting, a common subject of misinformation spread on social media.
Similar performances played out across the state. Around the same time, the Conservative Party began running its ads.
“How corrupt are the politicians in Albany?” asked the narrator of the TV spot, which argued that the proposals were an “invitation to fraud and a scam to rig the system.”
Aside from the hard-charging efforts by the Republican and Conservative parties, opponents of the proposals benefited from outside dynamics, too.
The first ballot proposal divided watchdog groups, because it appeared to diminish the power of minority parties.
“Proposition 1 on redistricting was an overreach by Democrats that heavily motivated the G.O.P. and wasn’t backed by party energy or funds,” said John Kaehny, the executive director of the government reform group Reinvent Albany, which did not take a position on the proposal.
Takeaways From the 2021 Elections
Democratic panic is rising. Less than a year after taking power in Washington, the party faces a grim immediate future as it struggles to energize voters and continues to lose messaging wars to Republicans.
The state Democratic Party spent no money directly backing the ballot proposals, according to the state senator who sponsored two of them and the party’s leader, Jay Jacobs.
Mr. Jacobs said in an interview that the party was “never asked by any of the stakeholders to do that,” an assertion that the senator, Michael Gianaris, called “an outright lie.”
Mr. Gianaris, who leads the state’s Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, said the committee had spent more than $300,000 in support of the initiatives. Mr. Gianaris also shared an Oct. 20 email that one of his top aides sent to one of Mr. Jacobs’s top aides seeking the party’s help “on email blasts, social and mail.”
“That’s NO ask for money for a campaign!” Mr. Jacobs texted The New York Times when asked about the email, arguing that the aide’s email did not amount to a request for money.
Finally, as written, the ballot questions, which required voters to flip their ballots over to weigh in, were hard to understand, according to Common Cause and like-minded groups.
The state attorney general’s office proposes the ballot’s wording, but the state Board of Elections has final say, said Douglas Kellner, the board’s co-chairman.
“The ballot language for 1, 3, and 4 was frankly impenetrable,” Ms. Lerner said of the three measures that went down to defeat.
Perhaps the most powerful dynamic at work was the general anti-Democratic tilt of Tuesday’s election.
Gerard Kassar, the Conservative Party chairman, said that he was on the phone with Mr. Langworthy at about 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, and that by that point they had still not taken stock of all of their wins.
“We had a good night, to be honest with you,” Mr. Kassar said.