ITHACA, N.Y. — Tompkins County, an island of Democratic voters in an ocean of right-leaning and purple counties in upstate New York, is also where the Working Families Party (WFP) seems to have found its sturdiest foothold outside of New York City. 

Out of the 33,874 votes cast in Tompkins County in the governor’s race between Democrat Kathy Hochul and Republican Lee Zeldin, the unofficial results show that 13.23%, or 4,481 votes, came in on the WFP line for Hochul — a jump from the the 2018 Governor’s race, when just 1,812 votes in Tompkins County were cast on the WFP line for former Governor Andrew Cuomo. 

While 2022’s unofficial results exclude affidavit, absentee, and mail-in ballots, Tompkins stands to have the highest rate of votes cast on the WFP line out of every county in the state. The runner up is Kings County in New York City, which saw 10.92% of votes cast for governor on the WFP line.

With these results in hand, it may signal changes to come in the local political field, particularly in the City of Ithaca, which for decades has functioned as a one party town. An emergent WFP might not change the local ideology too significantly, since they normally support candidates from a further left perspective, but could provide more voting alternatives if the party’s momentum sustains.

WFP rarely runs candidates on its own party line, which would potentially spoil elections and see the progressive party blamed by Democrats for splitting the vote and putting a Republican candidate into office. But the deep blue status of the Ithaca-area would seemingly remove that apprehension. Only about 6% of voters in the City of Ithaca are registered as Republicans. 

The results of the 2022 election cycle affirms that for Stephanie Heslop, Chair of Tompkins County’s WFP club. “I think there’s space for a progressive party here.”

WFP first made its mark in the politics of Tompkins County when it endorsed Assemblymember Anna Kelles in 2018 amid a pack of Democratic candidates primarying for the seat. Since then, WFP has endorsed numerous candidates in local general elections, such as Alderperson Robert Cantelmo and Jorge DeFendini when they ran for their seats on Ithaca’s Common Council in 2021. In the most recent election, WFP endorsed Ithaca Mayoral candidate Katie Sims, though she did not appear on the party line on the Nov. 8 ballot. 

Ithaca Mayoral candidate Katie Sims speaks with a small crowd for a Working Families Party Rally on Ithaca’s Commons days before election day. Credit: Jimmy Jordan / The Ithaca Voice

Locally, WFP visibility and boost at the polls likely benefited from having candidates that appeared up and down the ballot. The WFP endorsement was given to incoming Democratic State Senator Lea Webb, set to represent Tompkins, Cortland, and Broome counties in the 52nd district. And in the congressional race to represent, go to Washington to represent NY19, a swing district. Josh Riley was endorsed by WFP. He lost to Republican Marc Molinaro by slightly more than two percentage points. 

The party’s endorsement acts as a signal that a candidate meets WFP’s progressive standards, and also comes with the promise of organizing and boots on the ground to help drive voter turnout.

But core to the WFP’s strategy across the state are New York’s fusion voting laws. Fusion voting allows candidates to appear under multiple political parties on the ballot, and it’s only done in eight states in the U.S.. 

Lee Zeldin appeared on the Conservative line and the Republican line, and Hochul appeared on the Democratic and WFP line, a common characteristic of statewide races. Voters are able to cast their ballot on the third-party line (in this case either Conservative or WFP), while remaining registered as a Democrat or Republican in order to vote in the primary elections. 

The strategy that WFP and other third parties use with fusion voting can lead to a highly disproportionate ratio of registered voters to votes cast on the third party line. While the WFP saw 4,481 votes cast for Hochul on their line in the election, they have just 307 registered party members as of November 2022. Proponents of fusion voting will argue that it creates space for third-parties in the democratic process while allowing voters to avoid sacrificing their voting power to advocate for alternative platforms.

In Ithaca, Heslop said, “You pretty much have to be a registered Democrat, to have an impact on local politics.”

Statewide, WFP’s legislative agenda advocates for increasing taxes on the wealthy and on Wall Street, as well as removing corporate and private interests from politics. WFP also advocates for bolstering New York’s protections for tenants, making healthcare universal, and aggressively combating climate change among other policy positions. 

There are areas of overlap between what the state’s WFP and what much of the Democratic Party espouses as political goals. New York WFP State Director Sochie Nnaemeka said that the long term goal is to demonstrate to the state’s Democratic leadership that voters are hungry for a progressive agenda. “For us the proof is in the pudding. The proof is in these elected officials who are running on a strong Working Families Party agenda. It is in legislative victories and a continued commitment to shaping a state that works for all of us.”

The WFP has some cause for celebration in the statewide election Votes that came to Hochul along the WFP line totalled 249,888, securing the third parties place on the ballot until 2024. The votes on the WFP line only make up 4.33% of the total vote in the Governor’s race, but it’s more than double New York’s last gubernatorial election in 2018, which saw 114,478 votes cast on the WFP line for former-Governor Andrew Cuomo. 

But those results stand in juxtaposition to a depressed voter turnout for Democrats across New York State. While registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans in New York more than 2 to 1, a strong turnout from Republican voters matched with Democrats’ low numbers led to Hochul winning with just 52.42% of the votes, according to the unofficial results.  

The relatively narrow margin of victory Hochul claimed over Zeldin jarred many in New York’s Democratic establishment and has spurred a desire for introspection among the party’s leaders. Progressives have seized the moment to criticize party leadership as disengaged and not in tune with the will of the voters. This internal party conflict is strongly represented in last week’s call for State Democratic Committee Chair Jay Jacobs to step down. 

Tim Perfetti, Chair of the Cortland County Democratic Committee, said he thinks that progressives and the WFP certainly contributed to getting out the vote for Hochul, but that the he feels the story behind the Dems low voter turnout is more complicated than the progressive side of the party is making it out to be. The WFP, he said, hasn’t earned their “victory lap” for pushing Hochul over the finish line. 

“It’s not like they have no data to prove that if [Hochul] did not have the Working Families Party line, and no other candidate was on the WFP line, then those people wouldn’t have gone down the row and voted Democrat,” said Perfetti.

In the case of Webb, who beat Republican candidate Rich David to represent the 52nd State Senate District, she won narrowly by 1,420 votes, receiving 7,342 votes along the WFP line. The district includes Tompkins, Cortland, and part of Broome County. President Joe Biden would have earned 60.5% of the vote in the district in the 2020 presidential election. David drew in 48.43% of the vote, and Webb won with 49.79% of the total vote. 

While the WFP seems to be getting their legs under them as a small, but vocal and organized political organization, some Democratic Committees are struggling to recruit people into their ranks. Tompkins County Democratic Committee Chair Linda Hoffman declined to comment on the role that she thinks the WFP party played in the elections in the county and the state, citing the desire to do more research before speaking on the matter, but she did acknowledge that when it comes to the local level Democratic Committees — like those in the City of Ithaca’s wards — it’s become increasingly difficult to get people to get involved that could do door knocking and gin up excitement for political candidates. 

“That’s happening across the country, so it’s not particular to Tompkins County,” said Hoffman. 

Statewide, and locally still, the WFP is still working within the limited space of a third party, but the traction that it’s demonstrated in Tompkins County is worth watching. Speaking to the Ithaca Voice anonymously, a member of the Tompkins County Democratic Committee said they viewed the Tompkins County WFP club as a “scrappy up-and-comer” that’s starting to make waves. 

The local WFP club, they said, seems to feel more inclusive, and has younger and more energetic members. And the state WFP seems to be able to live certain ideals with their platform that a lot of Democrats don’t get to necessarily. “It’s not like WFP has different values than the Democrats are supposed to have. And that’s why a lot of Democrats vote on the WFP line. […] They’re fighting for what a lot of us believe in,” they said.

If anything, they said that turnout of votes on the WFP line in Tompkins County does make one thing clear: “We’re not doing our job. Democrats aren’t getting it done.”

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn