There is a clear need for a new campaign financing system. Under New York State’s current campaign financing system, a small number of big contributors dominate the system and have an outsized influence over policymaking. As a result, seemingly endless campaign finance “pay-to-play” controversies and scandals have occurred over the decades. Reformers, academics, blue-ribbon commissions, and others have consistently advanced plans that would shift that paradigm to a system to fund runs for state government offices that relies on a large number of small contributors, thus reducing the corruption risk and engaging more voters.
Finally, after decades of reports and hand wringing, as part of the budget earlier this year Governor Cuomo and the state Legislature agreed to create the commission to work out the final details to institute a voluntary system of public financing in New York.
Last week, nearly five months after it was established in law, that state commission held its first meeting. The commission is charged with creating this new system by December first of this year, about three months from now.
Why did it take so long to get moving? The governor and the legislative leaders took months to make their legally required appointments. Months of foot-dragging by the leaders has left the commission will precious little time to meet the deadline of December 1st.
Yet, things are never as they seem in Albany. Almost immediately, the governor and others have argued that an additional mandate of the commission is to determine whether “fusion” voting would continue to be allowed as well.
“Fusion” voting is a system in which candidates for elective office can run on multiple political party lines and then aggregate total of votes of these lines to determine the total number of votes for a particular candidate. Thus, for example, a candidate running on the Republican and Conservative party lines would be allowed to total the number of votes – or “fuse” them – in order to determine if they won an election. In the vast majority of states, this practice is not allowed; in those states each party line is considered a separate vote and thus the total votes are not aggregated.
New York is among the small number of states in which “fusion” is allowed and there has been a decades-long debate over whether this is a good idea.
But there is nothing in the law creating the public financing commission that says they must consider fusion voting. The word “fusion” is nowhere to be found.
In fact, in order to ensure that it was clear that the commission’s mandate was to be narrowly focused on the issue of creating a system of public financing, no more and no less, there was a discussion on the state Senate floor while the Senators were voting on the plan to establish the commission. During that discussion, the chair of the Senate Elections Committee unequivocally stated that the charge of the commission was limited to the specific changes needed to establish public financing – nothing more.
So why are there reports inaccurately stating that the commission must consider “fusion” voting? It’s an effort by those wishing to end fusion voting to create enough “buzz” around the issue that their interests become a reality. And so far, it’s working.
Media reports on the first meeting of the commission stated that it must address fusion voting even though there is no such mandate in the law and there was no debate on the issue during the group’s first meeting.
In politics, advocates can create a public perspective so strong that it can become a reality, as long as they stick with it and push their views over and over. And as long as prominent leaders, in this case the governor, embrace that view, they can succeed.
Whether fusion voting is a good idea should be left for another day. The commission has only three months to put together a plan for public financing – a mandate clearly articulated in state law. Dithering over unrelated issues will only cause a major distraction of the important work at hand.
New Yorkers should expect these commissioners to do their job and not get pushed and pulled by invisible demands. They must focus on a mountain of important decisions – staffing, setting rules for decision-making, holding public hearings, consulting with experts, and developing a voluntary system of public financing that will have the force of law by this December.
The commission has a lot to do and precious little time to do it. The time crunch is not their fault, that failure lies with the governor and the legislative leaders. However, New Yorkers must hope that the commission does not compound the leaders’ error by focusing valuable time on issues outside the scope of their mandate.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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