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Proposal By NY Democratic Party Chair Could Help Conservatives

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Pat Bradley

The chair of New York State’s Democratic Party, Jay Jacobs, has found himself on the defensive after a leaked email revealed a proposal that could weaken minor parties backed by progressive Democrats, and strengthen the state’s Conservative Party.

In the email to a commission formed to create a public campaign financing system for New York elections, Democratic Party Chair Jacobs proposed changing the qualifications for minor parties to automatically earn a place on the ballot. The email was first reported in the New York Times.

Currently, if a minor party receives 50,000 votes in a gubernatorial election, held every four years, its members don’t have to go through a cumbersome petition process to be on the ballot the next time.

In the email, Jacobs asked the commission’s attorney whether the threshold could be much higher, and require that a party receive 250,000 votes every two years, instead of every four years, in order to be automatically included on the ballot.

Jacobs is also the defacto chair of that commission. Speaking to reporters in Buffalo after a public hearing held by the commission, Jacobs acknowledged that he wants to raise the threshold for parties to be automatically included on the ballot.

“I am going to propose a dramatic increase in that threshold,” Jacobs said. “What level that goes to, I don’t know.”

The proposal would harm left-leaning parties including the Working Families Party and the Green Party, who in the past have not received 250,000 votes in a governor’s race. If they find it harder to get on the ballot, they will have fewer opportunities to cross endorse candidates. The Green Party runs its own candidates, but the Working Families Party often cross endorses Democratic candidates, signaling to voters that the candidate’s views are to the left of the mainstream Democratic Party.

But the change would benefit the state’s Conservative Party, which often cross endorses Republicans, and has met the 250,000 vote threshold in past gubernatorial races. The Conservative Party differs with the Democrats on nearly every major public policy issue.

Jacobs says he can’t be concerned about that.

“I can’t be driven by outcome,” Jacobs said. “I’ve got to create the proposal in a way that I think balances the need to have minor parties with the credibility of those minor parties.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo has been feuding with the Working Families Party, which in 2018 snubbed the governor and endorsed Cuomo’s Democratic primary rival, Cynthia Nixon.  

Jacobs says his proposal has nothing to do with any disagreement Cuomo may have with a political party and he says he’s “not carrying water for the governor." 

Cuomo, speaking at unrelated event at La Guardia airport Tuesday, says he’s remaining neutral, but he concedes that politics is fueling some of the commissioners’ decisions, calling the process “politics on steroids."

And Cuomo did not disagree with Jacob’s idea. The governor says the larger issue is that cutting down on the number of parties who qualify for the ballot will save taxpayers money when the public campaign finance system is enacted.

“If you have seven political parties in the state and you go to public financing, which is the goal, you could potentially be financing 1,000 candidates per election cycle,” said Cuomo. “Which is obviously, politically and economically, not feasible.”

Advocates and experts who have studied public campaign finance systems say the number of political parties that appear on the ballot does not have to increase the costs for the public financing system. In New York City’s decades-old public finance system, which is largely viewed as successful, the money follows the individual candidate, regardless of how many parties might endorse them.

Jessica Wisneski, with the government reform group Citizen Action, has advocated for public campaign financing in New York for the past decade and half, and before that in Connecticut. Wisneski, who is also on a state committee member in the Working Families Party, spoke at the commission’s public hearing in Albany earlier this fall.

“Not once in 14 years has any lawmaker, voter, organization or group that I have spoken to about public financing of elections ever asked me or related it in any way to fusion voting,” Wisneski said. “New York City and Connecticut now have a long experience of both systems being together and working quite well.”

Wisneski says that the fusion voting system is not perfect, but she says it should not be addressed by a commission whose primary mission is to design a public campaign finance system.

“That should be left to the legislature,” Wisneski said. “Your duty is to craft a public campaign financing system.”

Jacob’s proposal caught the attention of Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren. Warren, in a tweet, said the proposal attacks the Working Families Party and “will only benefit Republicans.”

“No Democrat should allow this to pass," she wrote.

State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, a Democrat, wrote in an op-ed in Newsday that fusion voting is” a net positive for New York.” He says the commission should leave it alone.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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