ALBANY — It seemed, at first glance, to be an innocuous idea.
Late last month, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced that he would sponsor a “statewide survey” to allow New York State residents to vote on the design for new license plates, featuring a number of landmarks.
Four of the five options were strikingly similar: On each, the state’s one-word motto, excelsior, is emblazoned across the bottom in capital letters; the color scheme is white and dark blue, with gold accents; and they all include the Statue of Liberty.
Then there was the fifth.
It has no gold accents, and no mention of excelsior — just a simple image of the new bridge over the Hudson River that happens to be named for the governor’s father, the former governor Mario M. Cuomo.
The fact that the governor included the image of the Cuomo Bridge — completed in 2018 and hardly a tourist stop — in the competition immediately attracted conspiracy theories on Twitter, including from Nate Silver, the election analyst and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight, who suggested that the survey was “kind of rigged” because the multiple images of the Statue of Liberty would split the vote.
“Certainly there’s a number of landmarks that could be used,” said Brian Kolb, the upstate Republican who serves as minority leader in the State Assembly. “I don’t think the Mario Cuomo bridge is one of them.”
In the end, voters agreed: Late Friday afternoon, state officials announced that the bridge design had come in a tie for last among the five designs, with less than 10 percent of the vote. The runaway winner was a composite of various sites, including Niagara Falls, the Manhattan skyline, Lady Liberty and a lighthouse.
The defeat of Mr. Cuomo’s favorite bridge, however, did not seem to appease Republicans, who have been shunted to the sidelines in Albany after disastrous electoral results last year, from pouncing on the issue. They have called it “PlateGate,” and have promised hearings, petitions and legislation to remedy it.
On Friday, the scrutiny continued as Nick Langworthy, the chairman of the New York State Republican Party, said he would pursue a Freedom of Information Law request for “all documentation related to Cuomo’s license plate tax contest.”
“New Yorkers have a right to full transparency,” Mr. Langworthy said in a statement.
Much of the Republican ire is focused on another aspect of the decision to overhaul the state’s plates: Under Mr. Cuomo’s plan, all license plates over 10 years old must be replaced with the new design, at a cost of $25 per plate.
If motorists want to keep their plate number, including personalized plates, there would be an additional $20 charge. The fees would take effect April 1, which is the first day of the state’s fiscal year and a famous holiday for fools.
Lawmakers estimate that the fees have the potential for a two-year, $75 million influx of funds for the state, as three million drivers will be compelled to replace their plates between April 2020 and April 2022. (The cost of labor for plates, made at a state prison in Auburn, N.Y., is about $1.)
Mock-ups of plates showing legislators picking taxpayers’ pockets spread on social media, as did a battery of automotive puns.
“It’s highway robbery,” said Senator James Tedisco, a Republican from a district near Albany.
Mr. Cuomo said the new plates were necessary to “eliminate legibility issues” with older plates when detected by red light cameras, cashless tolling systems and other devices.
But his reasoning has even failed to placate members of his own Democratic Party, with whom the governor has had an unsettled relationship. Some accused him of “nickel and diming” New Yorkers and engaging in an “unnecessary cash grab.”
“There are people who are struggling to pay every bill,” said Senator David Carlucci, a Democrat representing parts of Rockland and Westchester Counties. “So another $25 is a big deal.”
Days after the contest was proposed, Mr. Carlucci joined with another Democrat, State Senator James Skoufis, to propose a bill that would bar any new license plate fees so long as the plates were still legible.
But rather than back down, the governor has counterattacked, blaming the Legislature for the fee — noting that it was authorized by legislation dating to 2009, before he was elected to his first term.
“Look, if the Legislature comes back and they want to change the cost of a license plate, they can do that,” Mr. Cuomo said in a radio interview on WAMC last week. “They want to change the cost of a fishing license, they can do that. They want to change the tax code, they can do that. They set the fee 10 years ago. You want to reduce it? I’m all in favor of it. But don’t say, as you said, the governor set a $25 fee.”
But for critics of Mr. Cuomo’s sometimes bruising political style, the license plate kerfuffle was emblematic of his inability to admit error and his propensity for self-promotion.
“I think honestly the governor just can’t help himself,” said Mr. Kolb, the Assembly minority leader, who accused Mr. Cuomo of “trying to disguise the license plate fee as a fake competition.”
Mr. Kolb and other critics of the plan also point out that the law only dictates that the fee not exceed $25; the governor, they argue, could charge less.
Sensing rising opposition, Mr. Cuomo’s office released late last week a response from the commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles, Mark J.F. Schroeder, who accused legislators of “hypocrisy and misstatements” and “seeking cheap press hits.”
The commissioner then cited a standard by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators that 10 years is “a license plate’s useful life.”
Richard Azzopardi, a senior adviser to Mr. Cuomo, also noted that other states have plate replacement programs. Alabama and Kansas, for example, require such changeover every five years.
“The goal of this program is to set up a system that adapts to our changing technology,” Mr. Azzopardi said, adding that “the D.M.V. commissioner looks forward to working with the Legislature to come up with a system that meets that goal before April.”
As for the contest itself, Mr. Azzopardi was blunt. “We’ll leave the conspiracies to the internet,” he said, “and the fringe politicians who choose to live there.”
In announcing the winner on Friday, Mr. Schroeder again blasted “the hypocrisy and misstatements regarding the preset cost of a license plate that were made by headline-grabbing politicians during this process.”
As for the new plate itself, however, Mr. Schroder struck a more poetic tone, saying the design “truly represents what the Empire State is all about,” including the state’s diversity, architecture and natural beauty.
“And,” he said, “our unyielding commitment to freedom and justice for all.”
Jesse McKinley is The Times’s Albany bureau chief. He was previously the San Francisco bureau chief, and a theater columnist and Broadway reporter for the Culture Desk. @jessemckinley