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Activists Tell Campaign Finance Commission To Stick To Campaign Finance, Hands Off Fusion Voting

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Politicians and progressive activists converged yesterday at the first hearing of a newly created commission to address the public financing of elections in New York, arguing for a statewide system that would provide matching funds to candidates. And they aggressively pushed back against another matter the commission has taken up—the possibility of quashing fusion voting in New York.

The all-day hearing, held at Borough of Manhattan Community College, was the first of several being staged across the state before the commission, known as the New York Campaign Financing Commission, makes its full recommendations in December. At stake is how elections are run throughout New York and the survival of powerful third parties that have played an outsized role in the state’s politics for decades.

“As someone with issues with both major parties, including Democrats, I’m very thankful to have some other parties that I can align with,” said Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, speaking at a rally outside the hearing. “Notably, there has been no public demand [to end] fusion voting, unlike the public call to end dominance of big money in New York politics.”

The commission came to sudden life in April after the Democrat-controlled state senate and assembly couldn’t agree upon what a public matching funds system for all of New York should look like. Legislative leaders, along with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, approved language in the state budget that would create a new commission to settle the matter. Made up of nine members appointed by the Democratic and Republican legislative leaders as well as Cuomo, the commission enraged progressive and conservative activists alike when it decided it would also determine whether fusion voting—the ability of candidates to appear on multiple ballot lines at once—should be eliminated.

One of the great beneficiaries of fusion voting, which is only legal in a handful of states nationwide, has been the Working Families Party, a progressive third party despised by the more conservative Cuomo. Many of the Democratic elected officials in the state, outside of Cuomo, enjoy a warm relationship with the WFP, and have joined their effort to rally around the cause of safeguarding fusion. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, two of the top presidential contenders, have also expressed support for keeping fusion voting in New York.

Dan Cantor, one of the founders of the WFP, appeared at the hearing on Tuesday, sparring with the commission’s primary critic of fusion, Jay Jacobs. Jacobs, the chair of the State Democratic Party and a close Cuomo ally, is widely viewed as a proxy for Cuomo (Cuomo named him to the commission), though Jacobs has denied he speaks for the governor. Jacobs’ position on the commission has already called its independence into question: A website for the commission takes visitors to Cuomo’s home page.

“Do these minor party voters deserve less respect than voters who prefer major parties?” Cantor asked, arguing attempts to shut down fusion limit voters’ choices. “In reality, the major parties dislike fusion. They kind of wish it would go away but they put up with it because it’s the law.”

Jacobs argued that preserving fusion voting, coupled with a statewide public financing system for campaigns, would lead to more primaries and expenses for the state, echoing a contention Cuomo made earlier this year. Given that fusion allows for one candidate to appear on several ballot lines at once, instead of third parties each fielding their own candidates, it’s unclear how this would be true.

“You said eliminating fusion voting would limit voter choice,” Jacobs said, pointing to races on Long Island where Democrats like the Nassau County DA, Madeline Singas, will run on the Democratic and Conservative Party lines. “But right now, fusion voting some would argue—I would argue—does limit voter choice.”

Third parties fear a loss of fusion because they derive some of their clout from their ability to lend a ballot line to mainstream Democrats and Republicans, providing additional votes in close elections. More important, but often left unsaid by WFP, is the preservation of party status: Political parties in New York can spend virtually unlimited amounts of cash on their endorsed candidates while coordinating with their campaigns. WFP nearly guided Tiffany Cabán to an upset in the Queens District Attorney primary by effectively running her campaign in the final months of the race.

This argument was not featured yesterday. Rather, proponents said fusion has nothing to do with the public financing of campaigns and should not be debated at all. The WFP has argued in a lawsuit that fusion is protected in New York’s constitution and at least one elected official, State Senator Liz Krueger, predicted more litigation against the commission if it recommended, in December, a fusion ban.

“Don’t be confused if this commission makes it one answer, combining an attack on fusion voting with campaign finance. Very likely, the whole thing blows up,” Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, said. “If this all falls apart and it gets merged and they pass everything, reporters might be excited to hang out in another courtroom, watching another set of lawsuits—that’s exactly where this will land.”

Missing from the hearing were any representatives from the Conservative Party, the hard right third party that both supports fusion and opposes the public financing of campaigns. Gerard Kassar, the chair of the Conservative Party, said in a statement he would not appear in front of a “sham” commission.

“Anyone who cherishes free speech and the rule of law should be alarmed by what Governor Cuomo and the New York State Democratic Party are trying to ram through this sham commission,” Kassar said. “They are attempting to shut down political dissent in New York and foist the cost of political campaigns on already beleaguered New York taxpayers.”

The Conservative Party, which also filed a lawsuit against the commission, would have even more to lose if fusion were eliminated. Founded more than a half century ago to push Republicans to the right, the party has gained clout in suburban and rural counties where the votes it provides on its ballot line can help lift Republicans to victory.

For opponents of fusion like Jacobs, who also chairs the Nassau County Democratic Party, this is a reason to end fusion: Both the Conservatives and the Independence Party, a dubious third party that has aided Republicans beyond the five boroughs as well as Cuomo, would be crippled. In Nassau and Suffolk Counties, corruption scandals have also been linked to fusion voting.

Beyond fusion, the commission also grappled with how a statewide public financing system would function, given the size and scope of New York and the number of campaigns that would have to be administered. Good government advocates have suggested one model could be the nonpartisan New York City Campaign Finance Board, which oversees an 8:1 matching funds program for qualifying municipal candidates.

Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause NY, testified that a “workable and effective” public financing system would start by figuring out what the expenditure limits for campaigns should be. An analysis of what campaigns cost throughout the state is needed, she said.

While the city campaign finance board painstakingly audits every single campaign for infractions, sometimes taking years to fine candidates, Lerner suggested that a state campaign finance board, which would oversee many more campaigns, adopt a randomized auditing system like the public finance entity in Arizona.

“You need to set up a system to check for anomalies and patterns way out of the ordinary,’ Lerner said. “That’s basically how people cheat.”

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