Gotham Gazette Sat, 06 Jun 2020 09:22:06 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) New York's Smaller Political Parties Must Quickly Meet New Ballot Thresholds Cuomo political rally winking

Gov. Cuomo appears interested in seeing the demise of New York's smaller political parties (photo: New York Democratic Party)

Included in the bills to approve a state budget for the new fiscal year beginning April 1 was the creation of a new campaign finance system with a public-matching program, lower individual contribution limits, and various other changes to campaign finance law. But the controversial inclusion of changes to ballot thresholds could prove to be a poison pill, not for the law but for the several minor political parties that operate in New York’s electoral system.

The new thresholds to secure an automatic ballot line will be daunting for most, if not all, minor parties in the state, considering their showing in recent elections for governor and president. Other than the Democrats and Republicans, only the Conservative Party has been able to consistently garner the number of votes the new thresholds would require to ensure a party can easily nominate candidates for offices across the board for years at a time.

The new campaign finance system and ballot access laws were first put into place in December based on the binding recommendations of a commission created in last year’s budget deal. But that law was struck down by a New York Supreme Court judge who ruled that only the Legislature was constitutionally authorized to create or amend state law, leading to the Legislature voting the commission’s recommendations through in the state budget, with support from Governor Andrew Cuomo.

[Read: Previously Struck Down in Court, New State Campaign Finance System and Political Party Ballot Thresholds Passed in Budget]

One of the more controversial aspects of the law is the amendment of political party ballot access provisions. Previously, in order to gain an automatic ballot line, a political party had to have its nominee for governor receive 50,000 votes each four-year cycle. The new law significantly increased that requirement to 2% of votes or 130,000, whichever is greater, every two years, in gubernatorial and presidential elections.

Additionally, statewide candidates seeking to get on the ballot must gather 45,000 petition signatures from registered voters, up from 15,000 previously. 

The new thresholds go into effect this year, meaning it will be in play for the upcoming November presidential election, while the broader public financing program won’t begin until after the November 2022 statewide election, when Cuomo is expected to seek a fourth term.

Those changes were exactly what minor parties like the Working Families Party, Conservative Party, Green Party, Independence Party, and Libertarian Party had feared when the state commission was set up last year to look at campaign finance law. They worried that Cuomo, in an attempt to thwart the third parties, especially the Working Families Party (WFP), that had so often been a thorn in his side, was seeking to undermine the state’s constitutionally-protected system of fusion voting, which allows candidates to appear on the ballot under several party lines. The system gives minor parties some additional measure of political influence, as candidates seek their endorsement, and therefore the ability to steer issues in the state Legislature and elsewhere.

The WFP and Conservative Party sued, citing the commission’s lack of authority, and won. But the Legislature passage of the bill made their victory moot, though the WFP has promised to sue yet again.

Minor Party Enrollment and Recent Performance
Garnering 130,000 votes isn’t a heavy lift for the two major parties, Democrats and Republicans, but the new requirements could mean that minor parties will lose their ballot lines, and with it, much or all of the prominence they hold in the state’s political arena. The ballot requirement is the strictest across the country. No other state requires that a party qualify for ballot status every two years, and other populous states have over time eased party ballot access rather than make it harder.

Along with the two major parties, six smaller parties secured enough votes via their 2018 gubernatorial candidates to have automatic ballot lines for 2019 and 2020. Though party enrollment is not necessarily a determining factor, since voters can cast a ballot on any party line in a general election, some parties do have more dedicated voters. According to state Board of Elections data, as of February 21 this year, the Conservative Party had 159,612 enrolled voters; the Working Families Party had 46,043; the Green Party had 28,301; the Libertarian Party had 14,880; the Independence Party had 483,870 voters; and the newly-created Serve America Movement Party had 349.

In the 2018 statewide election, Cuomo (and his running-mate, Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul) received 114,478 votes on the Working Families Party ballot line, the result of yet another reluctant compromise between Cuomo and the WFP after a bitter primary fight. With more than 6 million votes cast that year, a 2% threshold would have been about 122,000 votes, meaning under the new law the higher 130,000 threshold would apply and the WFP would have lost its ballot line.

Other parties would similarly have suffered. Howie Hawkins of the Green Party received about 104,000 votes, Larry Sharpe of the Libertarian Party got about 95,000 votes, and Cuomo received about 68,000 votes on the Independence Party line. The Serve America Movement Party just won the automatic ballot line by getting 55,441 votes with former Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner as its endorsed gubernatorial candidate. Only the Conservative Party, which saw its nominee, Republican Marc Molinaro, garner 253,000 votes, would have hit the magic number of the new threshold.

“Governor Cuomo claims that now is not the time for politics — yet behind closed doors he is blocking voters from supporting minor parties and the values they stand for,” said Sochie Nnaemeka, director of the New York Working Families Party, in a statement. Nnaemeka was not made available for an interview. “At a time when many Democrats are calling for fair and open elections, the Governor has made New York the most hostile state toward third parties in the entire nation. When he created a commission to wipe out third parties we sued and won. We feel as strongly now as we did then that the law is on our side — and we will win again in court."

Recent Presidential Elections
Given that the new thresholds go into effect this year for a presidential election -- and one that is expected to see enormous turnout (though the coronavirus outbreak could impact that prior assumption) -- recent such contests in New York may be instructive for how minor parties will fare this fall in securing an automatic ballot line for the next two years, which will include the 2022 gubernatorial election.

In the 2016 general election, for example, there were 7.8 million votes cast in New York, which would have set the new ballot threshold at over 156,000 votes. That year, Donald Trump received 292,392 votes on the Conservative Party line; Hillary Clinton got 140,043 votes on the Working Families Party line; Green Party nominee Jill Stein received 107,935 votes; Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson received 57,438 votes on that line, and another 119,160 votes on the Independence Party line; ; and Clinton received just 36,292 on the Women’s Equality Party line (the WEP lost its ballot line after receiving few votes nominating Cuomo in 2018).

Therefore, using the new thresholds, only the Conservative Party would have retained its automatic ballot line.

In the 2012 presidential election, with more than 7.1 million votes cast in New York, the bar under the new threshold would have been closer to 142,000 votes. Mitt Romney received 262,371 votes that year on the Conservative Party line; Barack Obama received 148,119 votes on the Working Families Party line; Green Party nominee Jill Stein got 39,982 votes; and Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson got 47,256 votes. There were also two minor parties whose presidential nominees barely received any votes – Peta Lindsay received 2,050 votes on the Party for Socialism and Liberation line and Virgil Goode received 6,274 votes on the Constitution Party line. Using the new thresholds that go into effect this year, the Conservative and Working Families Parties would have kept their ballot lines.

2014 Election for Governor
In the 2014 New York gubernatorial election, there were only 3.9 million votes cast so the threshold would again have been 130,000 votes. Conservative Party nominee Rob Astorino received 250,634 votes on that ballot line; Cuomo got 126,244 votes on the Working Families Party line; Green Party nominee Howie Hawkins got 184,419 votes; Cuomo received 77,762 on the Independence Party line; Libertarian Party nominee Michael McDermott got 16,769 votes; and the Women’s Equality Party, then newly created, got 53,802 votes on its line nominating Cuomo, who created the party in that year’s attempt to hurt the WFP. The Sapient Party nominated Steven Cohn and got 4,963 votes and Astorino received 51,492 votes on the Stop Common Core Party line that he and his allies created that year (though it met the 50,000-vote threshold at the time, it was taken over by political operatives that then turned it into the Reform Party, but that party then failed to keep the ballot line via the 2018 election).

Based on those numbers, the Conservative and Green Parties would have kept their ballot lines under the new system set to go into effect this year.

Who Will Survive
Based on past results, only the Conservative Party looks strongly poised to survive the new rules, though much will depend on how the parties are able to rally voters around the new ballot thresholds.

In 2018, the Conservative Party received those 253,000 votes with Molinaro and Julie Killian running for governor and lieutenant governor on its line. “We really never in our party's history dropped below what these numbers would be,” said Jerry Kassar, chair of the New York State Conservative Party, in a phone interview. 

But nevertheless Kassar opposes the new thresholds on principle. “People may say, ‘Well the Conservative Party benefits from this party or that party not being there.’ We're a part of a third party movement. We're not looking to see any political parties that were established disappear.”

He also worried that in creating the new thresholds, the Legislature allowed the governor to chip away at the fusion voting system without directly attacking it and set a precedent that will allow a slow creep over the rights of minor parties. But, he predicted that it could blow up in the governor’s face, particularly if the WFP survives the “life or death struggle” it faces.

“The governor is starting to play a game of chicken or a game of Russian roulette, I should say, with the third parties,” Kassar said. Cornered animals, he said, “have no choice but to fight back in as vicious a manner as they can and I think that's what he's created with many of these third parties.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

New York's Smaller Political Parties Must Quickly Meet New Ballot Thresholds Sun, 12 Apr 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Previously Struck Down in Court, New State Campaign Finance System and Political Party Ballot Thresholds Passed in Budget Cuomo Heastie Stewart-Cousins

State government leaders Stewart-Cousins, Cuomo, Heastie (photo: The Governor's Office)

A new state campaign finance system, with public matching money for candidates who choose to participate and lower individual contribution limits, will be enshrined in law through inclusion in the new state budget. It is accompanied by new and highly-controversial ballot-threshold requirements for political parties.

Using a modified system due to the coronavirus outbreak, the state Legislature voted through various budget bills on Tuesday and into the late hours on Wednesday, meaning the spending plan is late given the April 1 start to the new fiscal year, as negotiations continued among the governor and legislative majorities.

The campaign finance system had already been approved last year based on the recommendations of a state-created commission but was struck down in mid-March by a supreme court judge who ruled that such a commission could not be tasked with writing laws.

[Read: Judge Strikes Down New State Campaign Finance Law]

Last year, despite mounting public pressure and their own promises to get it done, Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Democratic majorities in the state Legislature could not come to an agreement on a new campaign finance system including public matching of small donations and lowering New York’s sky-high contribution limits. They chose instead to punt that responsibility to the state Public Campaign Financing Commission, which was created in the budget.

After months of public hearings and expert testimony, the commission’s report was released and automatically became law in December, when the Legislature neither rejected nor amended it. But, the commission’s creation invited legal challenges from New York’s Working Families Party and Conservative Party, which saw it as a threat to the system of fusion voting that allows candidates to appear on a ballot with numerous party lines. One of those challenges succeeded when, on March 12, Niagara County Supreme Court Justice Ralph Boniello ruled that the commission’s powers were unconstitutional and that only the Legislature could create or change state law.

The budget bill approved on Wednesday addressed that mistake, and passed the same recommendations the commission had made. The law allows candidates for statewide office and the Legislature to opt in to a system of public financing that incentivizes small dollar donations by matching them with public funds. It’s similar to the system that has been used in New York City for over three decades.

The law drastically lowers contribution limits across the board, though government reform advocates say the limits remain too high nonetheless. Candidates for statewide office can now raise a maximum of $18,000 in a four-year election cycle from an individual contributor, down from about $70,000; state Senate candidates can raise $10,000, down from $19,300; and state Assembly candidates can raise $6,000, down from $9,400.

The most controversial aspect of the new law is the change it makes to party thresholds and ballot access requirements, along the lines of what had minor party leaders concerned when the commission was created last year, and what led to immense uproar as the commission’s recommendations were released and temporarily became law.

Statewide candidates now have to get 45,000 signatures from voters to get on the ballot, up from 15,000. For an automatic ballot line, a party must receive at least 130,000 votes or 2% of the vote, whichever is higher, every two years in a gubernatorial or presidential election, up from 50,000 votes every four years in a gubernatorial election. These new thresholds also take effect immediately, while the new contribution limits and campaign financing system won’t take effect till after the November 2022 general election. As was true when the commission crafted its recommendations last year, many see the results as especially favorable to Cuomo, who has said he plans to run for reelection in 2022 and is well-known to raise immense sums from wealthy interests, and who has sought to diminish the Working Families Party that he has warred with.

Candidates will only be able to qualify for funding once, regardless of the number of ballot lines on which they run. The system will be based on dual thresholds. Candidates for governor will have to raise at least $500,000 in qualifying contributions from a minimum of 5,000 contributors; those running for lieutenant governor, attorney general and comptroller will have to raise $100,000 from at least 1,000 contributors. State Senate candidates need to show $12,000 in fundraising from a minimum of 150 donors, and Assembly candidates will need at least $6,000 from 75 donors.

Statewide candidates can receive a maximum of $7 million in public funds between both the primary and general election, while Senate candidates can get $750,000 and Assembly candidates can get $350,000

The law creates a new State Campaign Finance Fund, but it makes no mention of how much money will be put towards the new system. The state commission-created law had set it at $100 million for a four-year election cycle. Funding will come from the state’s general tax revenues and from the abandoned property fund. State taxpayers can also choose to contribute to the fund when filing their taxes, and the fund can also receive private contributions. It will be overseen by the state comptroller and the state commissioner of taxation and finance.

The new system will be administered by a Public Campaign Finance Board within the state Board of Elections, made up of the four existing Board of Elections commissioners and three more appointed by the governor and the legislative leaders of the two main parties in both the Senate and Assembly.

The Working Families Party, which is among a handful of smaller parties that could see their automatic ballot lines at risk, reacted quickly and sternly.

"Governor Cuomo claims that now is not the time for politics — yet behind closed doors he is blocking voters from supporting minor parties and the values they stand for,” said Sochie Nnaemeka, state director of the New York Working Families Party, in a statement. “At a time when many Democrats are calling for fair and open elections, the Governor has made New York the most hostile state toward third parties in the entire nation. When he created a commission to wipe out third parties we sued and won. We feel as strongly now as we did then that the law is on our side — and we will win again in court."

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated with details about the new campaign finance system including qualifying thresholds, maximum payments and the new state Campaign Finance Fund. 

Previously Struck Down in Court, New State Campaign Finance System and Political Party Ballot Thresholds Passed in Budget Wed, 01 Apr 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Rolling Back Bail Reform Amid Coronavirus Outbreak Would Be Additionally Irresponsible sochie bail reform

Sochie Nnaemeka, the author (photo: @sochiesays)

In moments of crisis, we see what our leaders value. Over the past week, coronavirus has spread to Rikers Island. Our state should be focused on keeping detained New Yorkers and correctional workers safe and healthy. Instead, elected officials may roll back bail reforms in response to fear-mongering by opponents of the new law. If our leaders in Albany choose to reduce the number of people eligible to await their trial from home, the jail population could grow during a dangerous pandemic. We must put human safety over punishment and refuse any changes to the bail system.

For too long, New York’s “justice” system disproportionately kept innocent black, brown, and low-income people in cages before even being convicted—all because they were too poor to buy their freedom. While the wealthy were always able to walk free, these communities were caught in an endless cycle of punishment. It took decades of grassroots leadership and activism led by black and brown organizers to finally change a blatantly racist, classist system in meaningful ways.

Republicans, District Attorneys, and law enforcement that have a vested interest in past and present inequities are doing anything they can to claw back their power to incarcerate even more people. And some state officials are already caving to the fear-mongering by proposing regressive bail rollbacks.

There is nothing more cynical or cruel than choosing to put more people in jail during a pandemic.

Behind the negative headlines, we know there are tens of thousands of lives being changed for the better because of the new bail reforms. All across the state, we are hearing stories of New Yorkers who can now continue their lives and care for their children, rather than senselessly languish in jail and have their lives upended. People who need treatment for substance use or mental illness can get access to the support they need, rather than sitting in jails that have little to no health services.

Bail changes should be left alone regardless of any new developments unrelated to their efficacy. But to roll back bail reform in the midst of this pandemic would mean the state considers certain people’s lives expendable, including thousands of people whose only crime is being poor.

At a time when Governor Cuomo is telling New Yorkers to remain home, stay six feet away from others, and avoid crowds, he cannot simultaneously support sending more New Yorkers to crowded, unsafe jails. Our elected officials should instead focus on releasing vulnerable New Yorkers who are at increased risk of illness and reducing the jail population.

What if the New York State Legislature committed itself to building a state that treated all New Yorkers with dignity and equal justice? As head of the New York Working Families Party, I know our members expect progressive leaders to govern with courage and moral clarity — not to operate within the same fear-based framework that maintained a racist justice system for so long. In this moment of crisis, we’re calling on New York state leadership to reject the politics of fear and put the health and welfare of all New Yorkers, including some of the most vulnerable, first. 

Sochie Nnaemeka is New York Working Families Party State Director. On Twitter @sochiesays & @NYWFP.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

Rolling Back Bail Reform Amid Coronavirus Outbreak Would Be Additionally Irresponsible Fri, 20 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Judge Strikes Down New State Campaign Finance Law new york state capitol

Big decisions to be made in the state capitol (photo: Mike Groll/Governor's Office)

A State Supreme Court judge in Niagara County struck down the state’s new campaign finance law which was based on the recommendations of a controversial state-created commission that took effect in December. The state Legislature could not give the commission the authority to make binding changes to state law, the judge ruled.

The New York State Public Financing Commission, established in the state budget last year, was a nine-member body made up of appointees of the governor and leaders of both major parties in the State Senate and Assembly. The commission was created as a compromise after the Legislature and Governor Andrew Cuomo could not come to agreement on a major campaign finance overhaul, including lower contribution limits and public matching funds for candidates, long-time demands of advocates and some elected officials who criticized the preponderance of wealthy donors and special interests in state elections.

The commission was tasked with formulating a new campaign finance system for state elections (similar to the system currently used in New York City) with a price tag of $100 million for a four-year election cycle. But seemingly at the behest of Cuomo, the commission also recommended changes to ballot petition requirements and party qualification thresholds, claiming that too many candidates of various parties on the ballot would bankrupt any new system and raising questions about how valid some of the state’s parties really are.

The commission recommendations became law in December after the Legislature took no action to amend or reject them.

A lawsuit against the commission led by the Working Families Party and joined by several rank-and-file members of the state Legislature, challenged the constitutionality of the law that created the state commission. A judge ruled in the WFP’s favor in a summary judgement handed down on Thursday.

Niagara County Supreme Court Justice Ralph Boniello ruled that “the Legislature, clearly and unequivocally, empowered the commission to legislate new law and repeal existing statutes. The line between administrative rule-making (which can be delegated) and legislative action (which cannot be delegated) has clearly been transgressed.”

Boniello wrote that creating new laws or repealing existing ones “is a function reserved solely to the Legislature under the Constitution.”

The judge also noted that though the statute that created the commission had a severability clause so that if one aspect was struck down, the rest would survive, “the Statute is an improper and unconstitutional delegation of legislative authority to the Commission.”

“This ruling is a victory for the voters of New York State,” said Sochie Nnaemeka, state director of the New York Working Families Party, in a statement. “We need more choices, not fewer, to build a strong democracy.” She added, “As we have consistently said and the courts confirmed today, an unelected commission has no right to interfere with New Yorkers’ constitutional right to fusion voting.”

Besides establishing lower contribution limits (though they remain relatively high) and creating a system to provide matching public funds for small-dollar campaign contributions to qualifying candidates, the commission had increased the number of petition signatures required for a statewide candidate to get on the ballot to 45,000 from 15,000.

Most controversially, it also increased the number of votes a political party needs to earn on its gubernatorial and presidential ballot lines in order to automatically qualify for a ballot line in subsequent elections within the same two-year period, from 50,000 votes every four years in a gubernatorial election to 130,000 votes or 2% of total votes cast, whichever is higher, every two years. Those moves seemed to be aimed at undermining New York’s smaller parties and the fusion voting system that keeps them alive. As a result, multiple lawsuits including the one by the WFP were filed against the commission, legislative leaders, and the governor (who was later dropped from the suit).

The Legislature could still choose to pass the struck down recommendations into law, though several elected officials and advocates have called for tweaks including reducing contribution limits further, quicker implementation, and placing the system under a new administrative body that is completely separate from the state Board of Elections. And there are many calls to also do away with the ballot status requirements in the event of a new system moving forward.

Jessica Wisneski, co-executive director of Citizen Action of New York, called on the Legislature to enact a small-donor public matching funds program through the regular legislative process. “New Yorkers have demanded action for years to reduce the influence of hedge fund billionaires, luxury real estate developers and the charter school industry,” she said in a statement. “We need immediate solutions that put power in the hands of those without the resources to write thousand-dollar campaign checks.”

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law urged the governor and legislative leaders to avoid using the legal ruling as an excuse to let publicly financed elections wither on the vine. “Albany can’t use today’s court ruling as an excuse to derail a public financing program that was promised to New Yorkers,” said Lawrence Norden, director of the Election Reform Program at the Brennan Center, in a statement.

Norden noted that the commission crafted its law after hearing months of testimony from campaign finance experts and members of the public who agreed on the need to reduce the influence of money in elections. “For decades, Albany’s wealthiest donors have drowned out everyone else. By following through on their promise of public financing, the governor and lawmakers can give more New Yorkers a say in the decisions that shape their lives,” he said.

Spokespeople for Governor Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie did not respond to requests for comment.

The commission’s recommendations made for odd bedfellows. The Conservative Party lies on the opposite end of the political spectrum from the WFP but nonetheless the two were allies when it came to opposing the new party thresholds. The Conservative Party had filed a separate lawsuit against the commission, mirroring the WFP’s. New York Conservative Party Chair Gerard Kassar called Thursday’s judgement a “total victory for political freedom in New York, and a reminder to Governor Cuomo that he is an executive and not an emperor. Reason has won out over Machiavellism, and New York is better for it.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Judge Strikes Down New State Campaign Finance Law Thu, 12 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Criticism Grows as State Campaign Finance Plans Head Toward Law outline justice agenda

(photo: governor's office)

New York State is set to adopt a new electoral campaign finance system, with voluntary participation, lower individual contribution limits, and a new public matching system to amplify small donations. It is based on the recommendations of a state commission, which also raised the threshold for political party ballot access, that will become law unless the state Legislature acts to amend them by Sunday, December 22, which legislative leaders have given no indication they will attempt.

But while many reform-minded elected officials and advocates have long-desired a new public campaign finance system for New York, reactions to the proposals, has been decidedly mixed and included a chorus of criticism related to how high donation limits would remain, how high the bar for a party ballot line would be raised, and what the commission didn’t touch at all.

Most government reform groups critiqued the final plan, even as they begrudgingly embraced that some progress would be made, however limited. Other groups rejected the proposed system and, along with several state lawmakers, are insisting that the Legislature must take it upon itself, and should have in the first place, to craft a new campaign finance system for the state, and without the distraction of party qualifications.

All the critiques may be moot, though, if a pair of lawsuits against the commission’s mandate succeed, leading the entire system to be scrapped.

The New York State Public Campaign Financing Commission, a nine-member body, was appointed this year by Governor Andrew cuomo and the majority and minority legislative leaders to drastically overhaul the state’s campaign finance laws and curb what many see as the corrupting influence of massive campaign contributions. It recommended a new campaign finance program in which candidates running for statewide office or a seat in the state Legislature will be able to receive matching public funds for small dollar campaign contributions of up to $250, to boost the support of everyday New Yorkers and discourage reliance on wealthy donors.

Though contribution limits were reduced, they remain relatively high – statewide candidates can raise $18,000 from an individual donor, down from about $70,000 but still far higher than the $5,600 limit for a presidential candidate. An individual will be able to donate $10,000 to a State Senate candidate, down from $19,300; candidates for State Assembly can bring in $6,000 from individual donors, down from $9,400.

The commission also did not touch on state party committees, which can raise $117,300 from individuals and then send that to the candidate of their choosing without any limits. The commission also did not create restrictions, as advocates had called for, related to contributions from those either engaged in or seeking contracts from the state. These so-called “doing business” restrictions have been a signature reform in New York City, where a successful public matching funds program has been in place for three decades.

The commission steered clear of fusion voting, which allows candidates to appear on the ballot on multiple party lines and gives minor parties a potentially larger degree of influence in state politics. Minor parties worried that the commission would attempt to eliminate the fusion system, and sued to preempt it. But the changes to party ballot access could significantly alter the landscape of minor parties in the state: parties have had to see their gubernatorial candidate hit 50,000 votes on their party line in order to keep a ballot line for the next four years; under the new system, such access is reestablished every two years -- in presidential and gubernatorial elections -- and parties must see the top of their ticket hit 130,000 votes or 2% of the total vote, whichever is higher. In order to first appear on the ballot, a party and its statewide candidate will have to collect 45,000 signatures, up from 15,000.

The party qualifications are set to take effect right away, for the 2020 presidential election, while the new campaign finance system does not go into effect until 2026 legislative elections, two years after the next gubernatorial race. Those timelines are among the ways in which the commission’s recommendations appear to track closely with what Governor Andrew Cuomo may have designed in his own laboratory. Much of the commission’s work appeared to be directed or at least influenced by Cuomo-appointee Jay Jacobs, the state Democratic Party chair.

The state Legislature could choose to take up all the reforms and even tweak the system proposed by the commission in the upcoming legislative session, which begins January 8, or any thereafter. But there seems to be no appetite to do so from those in charge.

Spokespeople for the governor, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, all Democrats, did not respond to inquiries about whether they intend to amend the commission’s recommendations or let them stand, or even if they plan to introduce any further campaign finance legislation.

“There were some concerns. Some members are happy there’s a system,” Heastie said earlier this month, according to a Wall Street Journal report. “Some people are saying we can’t always let perfection stand in the way of good. I wasn’t alarmed by anything that the members raised.”

Cuomo, for his part, defended the commission after its report was released. “I think the commission was charged with a very difficult task, which was to reform the campaign finance system,” he told reporters after an unrelated news conference, arguing that the commission “made a number of inarguably great and dramatic reforms.”

In an op-ed in the New York Daily News, Assembly Members Harvey Epstein, Ron Kim, Yuh-Line Niou, and Linda Rosenthal, and Senators Gustavo Rivera and Julia Salazar wrote that the commission failed an opportunity to “break the tight grip of special interests and big money in our elections, take a giant step towards ending the era of dysfunction in Albany and empower everyday New Yorkers by making their voices heard through fundamental changes to our campaign finance policies.”

“Instead the commission approved a program that will do far too little to reduce big money’s dominance, will be in the hands of a dysfunctional agency too easily manipulated for partisan advantage and will only be launched years from now,” they added. “The commission also abused its power by using its process to launch an anti-democratic attack on New York’s minor parties that will make it unreasonably hard for them to remain on the ballot by raising the threshold of votes they must get.”

Though they are all but assured to fail, they vowed to introduce legislation before the December 22 deadline to make several fixes to the proposed system including further reducing contribution limits, putting administrative duties in a body other than the state Board of Elections, launching the program for the 2022 elections, removing the changes to party ballot thresholds and access, and adding a severability clause so if one proposal in the entire package is struck down by a court, the rest survive. “The commission’s proposal has fallen short, and the Legislature and governor have an obligation to act,” they said.

That group did not include all of the legislators who have spoken out publicly with their disappointment in the commission’s results.

Additionally, the Fair Elections for New York coalition, which spearheaded a massive movement for publicly financed elections this year, urged those same remedies in a November 27 letter to the governor and legislative leaders. “It is time to return to Albany to fix the Commission’s proposals and finally deliver the model for the nation New Yorkers were promised,” the coalition wrote.

The coalition includes several government reform groups – including Reinvent Albany, Citizens Union, the Brennan Center for Justice, New York Public Interest Research Group and Common Cause New York – which showed varying levels of support and condemnation for the proposals.

“With the recommendations approved today, the New York State Public Financing Commission has put together a solid foundation for a strong, state-level public financing system, the single most important reform any state can take in response to the Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United decision,” said Lawrence Norden, director of Election Reform at the Brennan Center, in a statement when the commission concluded its work. “The commission’s program, if adopted, will bring more New Yorkers into the state’s democracy, as donors and as candidates.”

Reinvent Albany said in a statement the commission “deserves credit” for creating a small dollar matching funds program. But, they added, “Unfortunately, while better than the abominable status quo, the Commission’s proposal does not reduce the dominance of big money enough to earn Reinvent Albany’s support.”

Perhaps the most scathing critique came on Wednesday from Citizens Union, which rejected the proposals outright. “The proposals put forth by the Commission do not just fail to strengthen our democracy, they are anti-democratic,” said Citizens Union executive director Betsy Gotbaum and Board Chair Randy Mastro, in a statement. “They make it harder for candidates to qualify for the ballot, limit the choices of voters, offer incumbents an unfair advantage, and do not meaningfully limit the power of money in New York State politics. This program is designed to fail, and will only preserve the status quo in Albany. While Citizens Union has been long-time supporter of public financing of campaigns, we cannot endorse this package.”

Since the commission decided to tie all elements of its plan together as one combined package, the whole thing could be negated based on lawsuits from the Working Families Party and the Conservative Party. Though the suits are separate, they were heard by the same judge on December 12. The attorney for the commission did not appear.

Those legal efforts have been somewhat complicated by the final commission report. The suits sought to protect against interference with fusion voting, with attorneys for minor parties saying it was unconstitutional to give the commission that authority. The final report, however, addressed the adjacent issue of ballot access without directly targeting fusion voting, which has some arguing that the lawsuits no longer have any merit. Even Attorney General Letitia James, appearing on behalf of the state despite her previous affiliation with the WFP, filed a motion to dismiss them, saying that the lawsuits were irrelevant, according to a Politico New York report.

In a statement, WFP state director Bill Lipton said the commission’s objectives were transparent to see. "The Public Financing Commission's report makes clear that the Governor's principle motivation was to weaken the Working Families Party: there is no other reason to raise the threshold for third parties a full four years before public financing begins,” he said. “With the subtlety of a sledgehammer, the Governor and his allies tried to weaken New York's progressives before he runs for office again — instead, his blatant abuse of executive power has only further energized progressives for 2020 and beyond.”

In the wake of the commission’s final report, other small parties -- like the Green Party and Libertarian Party, which both typically run their own candidates and don’t participate in fusion voting -- have made some noise about a new lawsuit.

If no legislative action is taken and the lawsuits don’t amount to anything, the minor parties will need to kick into high gear in 2020 in order to secure the necessary votes in the presidential election.

Eventually, candidates and parties will begin adjusting to the new campaign finance system, which according to the legislation that created the commission will have an initial $100 million annual budget. The new program will be administered by a new Public Campaign Finance Board comprised of seven members – four will be the commissioners of the State Board of Elections and one each will be appointed by the governor and the state Legislature’s majority and minority parties.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Criticism Grows as State Campaign Finance Plans Head Toward Law Thu, 19 Dec 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: State Campaign Finance Reform Takes Shape, with Challenge to Minor Parties cuomo utica

(photo: governor's office)

December 4, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: State Campaign Finance Reform Takes Shape, with Threat to Minor Parties

jacobs wis wbaiJay Jacobs, chair of the New York Democratic Party and a Governor Cuomo-appointed member of the state campaign finance commission that just finished its work, and Jessica Wisneski of Citizen Action NY and the Working Families Party joined the show to discuss the commission's binding and controversial work, including historic campaign finance reforms and new rules around political party ballot access.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Max & Murphy Podcast: State Campaign Finance Reform Takes Shape, with Challenge to Minor Parties Wed, 04 Dec 2019 05:00:00 +0000
State Lawmakers Criticize Campaign Finance Commission Results While Legislative Leaders Stay Mum state legislators hearing

(photo: @FairElectionsNY)

A state commission charged with creating a system of public financing for state elections has prompted harsh rebukes from several state legislators for proposing what they say is watered down campaign finance reform and for ostensibly advancing a political agenda that targets longtime critics of Governor Andrew Cuomo.

The New York State Public Campaign Financing Commission was appointed by Cuomo and state legislative leaders after a failure of consensus on overhauling the state’s campaign finance system. It was tasked in state law to create a public campaign finance system and, per Cuomo’s goals, to examine political party qualifications.

Advocates have long called for a setup at the state level modelled on New York City’s successful public matching funds system, which incentivizes candidates to seek small dollar donations rather than relying on wealthy contributors, includes low maximum individual contributions, requires a great deal of transparency, and comes with robust oversight.

But the system proposed by the commission, in its final vote on Monday, fell short of the expectations of advocates and reform-minded legislators. Though it voted to reduce contribution limits across the board for statewide and legislative seats, candidates will still be able to raise vast amounts of private money for elections. For instance, the limits for statewide candidates were reduced from about $70,000 to $18,000 for a full election cycle. But that is more than three times higher than the $5,400 that a candidate for president can raise in a cycle.

Unless the state Legislature returns to amend the commission’s recommendations within three weeks, the system will be adopted. The Legislature could, however, choose to pass new campaign finance laws and tweak the program in the next legislative session, which begins in January.

The commission also approved a higher threshold for parties to obtain a ballot line, increasing it from 50,000 votes in a gubernatorial election to 130,000 votes every two years, and increased the ballot petition signature requirement for statewide candidates from 15,000 to 45,000. To observers, the ballot threshold change in particular seemed intended to kneecap third parties like the Working Families, Conservative, and Green Parties and appeared to be carried out at the behest of Cuomo, who has feuded with the WFP for years. But that controversial mission was also carried out with at least the acquiescence, if not full support, of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, both Democrats, as is Cuomo.

Yet several Democratic Assembly members and Senators from New York City were displeased by the recommendations the commission made and the process through which its work was carried out over the last several months and quickly made their concerns known.

Queens Senator Jessica Ramos, a progressive elected last year with support from the WFP, took to Twitter to air her criticism of the commission’s proposals, as did other legislators. “We worked HARD last session to fix NY’s broken electoral system. We made it easier to vote & got closer to a people-powered government. The Public Finance Commission's vote is a disservice to our democracy & will eliminate @NYWFP. We need to engage more voters, not limit them!,” she tweeted.

Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou of Manhattan agreed with Ramos, simply tweeting “Yup” in response.

Senator Julia Salazar of Brooklyn tweeted, “This is shamefully undemocratic. We need to act swiftly in the legislature to reject it.”

Brooklyn Assemblymember Walter Mosley tweeted that the party qualification issue should never have been on the commission’s agenda. “Third parties are an essential part of the electoral system in New York, shining light on important issues that otherwise may not get the attention they deserve,” he wrote, calling the proposals “unacceptable” and promising to oppose an increase in the threshold for ballot access. “We should be making it easier for third parties to make it on the ballot, not harder,” he wrote.

In a series of tweets, Assemblymember Bobby Carroll of Brooklyn cited his “no” vote on this year’s state budget deal because of the inclusion of the “poison pill” provision on the state campaign financing commission. “I have said it from the beginning that this commission was rotten! Now we just know how rotten,” he tweeted. “This isn’t a public matching program this is a farce. The legislture (sic) needs to take back control.”

Manhattan Assemblymember Harvey Epstein tweeted, “Deeply concerned w Public Campaign Financing Commission’s vote to recommend legislation riddled w inadequacies, including overly high contrib caps at every level & a measure to kill minor parties."

In response, Manhattan Assemblymember Richard Gottfried wrote, "Protect voters & 3rd parties. The Legislature must reject the commission scheme!"

Brooklyn Assemblymember Jo Ann Simon tweeted, "I’m disappointed w/the Public Campaign Financing Commission’s vote to make it more difficult for minor parties to access a ballot line. We need a special session to address this, the still-too-high contribution limits, & limiting matching donations to a candidate’s district only."

Bronx State Senator Alessandra Biaggi has repeatedly let her disappointment be known. She credited the commissioners for their service but said she does not like the product, writing in part, "The Commission was created to put forth a plan that empowers everyday NYers & reduces the influence of money in our politics – the existing proposal only scratches the surface in achieving that aim, failing to significantly lower contribution limits." Biaggi also cited a "political agenda" at play in the attempt to "increase barriers for third parties."

"This proposal is half-baked & does not reflect the vision of the NYer who testified at the Commission’s hearings, & who raised their voices throughout this entire process," Biaggi continued. "The Legislature now has the responsibility to fulfill our promise to the people and get the job done."

In a phone interview, Bronx Senator Gustavo Rivera reiterated his call for the Legislature to vote on a “clean bill” on campaign finance reform. “I'm terribly disappointed, but I'm certainly not shocked,” he said of the commission’s recommendations.

Rivera blamed the governor’s machinations for derailing the process. “The governor, sadly, does not really care about establishing a campaign finance system. All he cares about is getting even with the folks who are his political rivals. That is his M.O.,” he said.

The “pièce de résistance” he said, was the ballot access threshold requirement, “which is ultimately, with a wink and a nod, trying to get rid of the WFP, which is really what this was about from the beginning.”

“The overwhelming majority of people made it very clear that they should create a campaign finance system that actually tries to at least minimize the impact of big money but that they should steer away from third parties, from fusion voting altogether. All those folks were ignored,” he said.

It’s unclear whether legislative leaders have any intention to support the idea of modifying the binding proposals. Assembly Speaker Heastie’s appointees on the commission generally went along with Cuomo’s appointees, while those commissioners appointed by Senate Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins tended to break from the pack.

Heastie’s office did not return a request for comment about the commission’s plan. Carolina Rodriguez, a spokesperson for Stewart-Cousins, referred Gotham Gazette to comments the senator made in a November 22 interview with WXXI News’ Karen DeWitt. “I’m not trying to destroy parties or make it impossible,” Stewart-Cousins said. “I definitely know, however, that we must reform our campaign finance (system).” She said she would prefer the party conversation to be separate from the campaign finance one, but also seemed open to legislative tweaks come January.

A spokesperson for Senator Mike Gianaris, the deputy majority leader, acknowledged a request for comment but did not provide one by publishing time. Senator Liz Krueger’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Jonathan Timm, a spokesperson for Senator Zellnor Myrie, declined additional comment until the commission’s recommendations are formally released. “Senator Myrie has made clear his support for public financing of campaigns, lowering contribution limits, and keeping the commission's hands out of fusion voting (which he stated explicitly in his testimony to the commission),” Timm wrote in an email. 

The WFP itself appeared to threaten primary challenges against legislators who fall in line behind the governor’s “power grab.” “Instead of designing a strong system of public financing of elections, this commission has designed a weak one, as a cover for a politically motivated attack on the Working Families Party,” Bill Lipton, WFP director, said in a Monday statement. 

He added, “Our opponents believe they can kill us. They are wrong. We will bring the full power of the WFP and our allies to bear in 2020 challenging those who block progressive change and electing the next generation of progressive leaders. We will build the biggest WFP GOTV operation yet to meet these new thresholds. And we will win.”

“If New York Assemblymembers don't speak up about and act to stop this public financing commission, they will be primaried with some amazing, energetic, democratic candidates. We are ready to go,” tweeted Fordham Law professor Zephyr Teachout, who ran against Cuomo in the Democratic primary in 2014, last year sought the Democratic primary nomination for attorney general, and is something of an inspirational leader for the New York left.

At a media gaggle on Tuesday, Cuomo downplayed the changes made to ballot thresholds while praising the commission. “I think the commission was charged with a very difficult task, which was to reform the campaign finance system,” he said. “I have to read the full report, I haven’t done it yet, but they made a number of inarguably great and dramatic reforms.”

He said the state shouldn’t be doling out public funds to political parties “without accountability and responsibility.”

“They’ve set a threshold by percentage and number, which they believe is a threshold that a credible party should reach,” he said. “If it’s not a credible party, then it shouldn’t be getting public tax dollars in primary races, et cetera. The Working Families Party, I think, would meet that threshold. You have to work to meet the threshold, but if you’re not working to meet a threshold, then you shouldn’t be qualifying for public money anyway.”

[Read: State Commission Approves New Campaign Finance System, Raises Bar for Political Party Ballot Access]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

This article has been updated with additional comments from legislators.

State Lawmakers Criticize Campaign Finance Commission Results While Legislative Leaders Stay Mum Tue, 26 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: The Future of Fusion Voting in New York fusion voting 600

(photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photo Office)

September 25, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: The Future of Fusion Voting in New York

stan fritz wbaiA commission established by Governor Cuomo and the State Legislature is designing a system of public campaign financing for New York, and also considering whether to try to end the practice of fusion voting. Its binding recommendations are due by December 1, but everything is complicated. Stanley Fritz of Citizen Action New York, which is part of the Working Families Party, joined the show to discuss the governor's push to end fusion voting, why he and others from the WFP and beyond are fighting to save it, and what comes next.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Max & Murphy Podcast: The Future of Fusion Voting in New York Wed, 25 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
The 10 Most-Read Gotham Gazette Stories of 2018 Cuomo Stewart-Cousins Klein

(photo: The Governor's Office)

As 2018 comes to a close, we’re looking back at some of our “best” and most-read articles of the year. In a separate post, we’ll highlight some of the “best” pieces we reported that aren’t among our top ten most-read articles, which are listed below. This list does not include articles like election guides or candidate lists or even our summaries of voter turnout numbers, all of which are often among our most-read posts, as was our article that reported on the mayor's charter revision commission announcing which questions it would put on the November ballot.

The list below also does not include opinion pieces, though several of the op-ed columns that we published this year did qualify in terms of page-views. But this list is for reporting done by Gotham Gazette, and here it is, our ten most-read articles of 2018:

   myrie rally

1. Conflict Escalates Between Working Families Party and Independent Democratic Conference
by Ben Max, March 2018
In late February the Working Families Party announced a series of candidates it was backing to challenge members of the Independent Democratic Conference in state Senate primaries. While a lot changed from February to the September primaries, in the end six WFP-backed candidates defeated members of what had been the eight-member IDC, with the WFP working alongside an extremely organized and energized group of other activists set on unseating IDC members and flipping the state Senate to Democrats.
Read the March article about the WFP escalating its efforts to unseat IDC members.

   marc molinaro

2. In Run for Governor, Marc Molinaro Will Make A Character Argument
by Ben Max, March 2018
As Republican Marc Molinaro launched his campaign for governor, this profile outlined how he would pitch himself to voters as a person of integrity and good leadership, and juxtaposed as such to the image he would portrary of Governor Andrew Cuomo. The Dutchess county executive ran a spirited and earnest campaign, regularly hitting the themes of this initial Gotham Gazette look at his candidacy, which was based on an hourlong interview with Molinaro while he was deciding whether to run or not. In the end, Cuomo dispatched Cynthia Nixon in the Democratic primary, then beat Molinaro and others in the general election, winning a third term.
Read the March article about how Molinaro would present himself to the statewide electorate and his stances on several key issues.

   rezoning de blasio

 3. Questions Arise as De Blasio Administration Rezones Series of Low-Income Neighborhoods
by Sam Raskin, March 2018
Mayor de Blasio's administration has pushed through several neighborhood rezonings aimed at adding housing density, building affordable housing, and making neighborhood improvements. All of them have occurred in low-income neighborhoods, a phenomenon not lost on many. In this piece, we examine the trend and what it means as areas like East New York, East Harlem, and the Jerome Avenue corridor in the Bronx are rezoned.
Read the March article about the de Blasio administration's approach to neighborhood rezonings, and which areas of the city appear to be off limits in terms of seeking added housing density.

   cuomo state senate

4. Major Cuomo Supporters Don’t Want a Democratic State Senate
by Ben Brachfeld, April 2018
As Governor Cuomo professed his full support for helping to flip the state Senate to Democrats, this article examined the fact that many of Cuomo's biggest supporters were also supporters of a Republican Senate. The Democratic governor had, after all, himself been seen as supportive of a split Legislature, with Democrats in control of the Assembly, so that he could triangulate, carefully craft which progressive policies he wanted to pass, and keep fiscal restraints in place, while also pushing ahead a charter school and real estate friendly agenda that aligned with his beliefs.
Read the April article outlining the main Cuomo backers who also backed a Republican state Senate.

   cynthia nixon

5. Is Cynthia Nixon Qualified To Be Governor?
by Ashley Hupfl, April 2018
From the moment she declared her candidacy for governor, Cynthia Nixon was dogged by one key question: what makes you qualified to lead the state of New York and run its government? Nixon gave various answers to the question, mostly saying that she had the right values and the right policy plans. In this article, we explored her qualifications and the general question of what makes someone qualified to be governor.
Read the April article discussing Nixon's resume and what it means to be qualified to become governor.

   hamilton adams

6. Senator Facing Tough Primary is Spending $1 Million from Brooklyn Borough President
by Daniel Yadin, August 2018
State Senator Jesse Hamilton, who became a member of the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference, was the preferred successor to Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams when Adams left the Senate to take his borough presidency position. The two close friends remained tight as Hamilton fought for his political life against a variety of forces looking to unseat him and other members of the IDC, and Adams was helpful to Hamilton in an unprecedented move of providing city funds for Hamilton to dedicate to projects in his Senate district.
Read the article that exposed the fact that Senator Hamilton was generously allocated participatory budgeting money by his close ally Borough President Adams as the senator was in a tough reelection campaign that he ultimately lost to Zellnor Myrie.

   corey johnson

7. Now Pursuing Diversity, New City Council Speaker Has Employed Mostly White Men
by Samar Khurshid, January 2018
During the race to become the next speaker of the City Council, questions were raised about diversity in city government leadership given the fact that the mayor and comptroller were both white men, along with top statewide positions. As Corey Johnson won that race, he talked about both the diversity he would bring to the role as an openly gay and HIV positive person, and the diversity he promised he would bring to the Council under his leadership. But a review of Johnson's hiring as a City Council member showed a track record of largely employing white men.
Read the January 2018 article that examined new Speaker Corey Johnson's past staffing demographics and his pledge to hire a diverse staff as speaker amid questions about the elevation of another white man to a powerful city government position.

   klein gjonaj

8. Close Ties Among Bronx Electeds, Campaign Consultants, Lobbyists and Donors
by Jake Shore, October 2018
There are often blurry lines in politics, especially when government and campaigns are concerned, involving lobbyists, consultants, donors, and elected officials who have various relationships. Some of the closest ties in New York politics have included State Senator Jeff Klein and City Council Member Mark Gjonaj, along with consultants and lobbyists who have worked with them, and donors who have given to their campaigns.
Read the October 2018 article that examined the close ties among Klein, Gjonaj, campaign consultants and donors, and others in their orbits.  

   de blasio bratton oneill nypd crime

9. Why Does Crime Keep Falling in New York City?
by Samar Khurshid, January 2018
While New York City has seen decades of declining crime numbers, part of a national and international trend, do we really know why? In this article we explored the theories and the facts about New York City's remarkable crime decline.
Read the January 2018 article that examined the decades-long crime decline in the city, which has continued under Mayor Bill de Blasio, some of the reasons experts provide for the trend, and what can actually be supported by data.

   cuomo vital brooklyn

10. A Closer Look at 'Vital Brooklyn,' Cuomo's Plan for 'One of the Greatest Areas of Need in the Entire State'
by Rachel Holliday Smith, December 2018
Governor Cuomo surprised many people when he first announced in 2017 a state investment of $1.4 billion in Central Brooklyn, with the governor explaining that "Vital Brooklyn" was a program to bring much-needed resources to an area of the city and state with some of the most significant challenges facing New Yorkers, including poor health, bad schools, lack of park space, and more. The program hadn't been a heralded or even named part of the prior state budget deal, but Cuomo explained it as a major initiative and went on to make many Vital Brooklyn announcements, including several in the lead up to the 2018 primary election wherein he was attempting to defeat Cynthia Nixon while relying on a political base including Central Brooklyn voters.
Read the December 2018 article that examines what exactly Vital Brooklyn is, where the money comes from and is going, and how Cuomo has used the program to make those many announcements.

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

The 10 Most-Read Gotham Gazette Stories of 2018 Sun, 30 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Is this the Election that Kills Fusion Voting in New York? govcuomo office pr

(photo via the Governor's office)

As New York lumbers out of its double primary season and rolls into a general election that’s being closely watched for its potential to give Democrats control of the state Senate and therefore the entire Legislature, another issue more central to the democratic process itself is being debated in pockets across the state.

Fusion voting, the practice of allowing one candidate to take multiple political party ballot lines in a single election and aggregate the votes received on each, is under the gun as both Democratic establishment figures and progressive activists are reaching the conclusion that the practice does more harm than good to New York’s democracy. Yet, this isn’t the first time in the Andrew Cuomo era fusion has faced a threat, much less the first time some in the state have looked to dismantle the practice, which continues to have its defenders.

New York put a dent in fusion voting in the mid-20th century with the Wilson-Pakula Law, passed largely in reaction to the victories of the suspected Communist-linked American Labor Party’s Representative Vito Marcantonio, who ran with multiple nominations including the Democratic and Republican lines on his way to victories in his East Harlem district. The law made it illegal for a candidate to run on the line of a party for which they weren’t registered, unless party leadership gave the candidate express permission through what is now commonly referred to as “a Wilson-Pakula.”

Smaller parties still exerted influence sometimes in New York though, as seen in John Lindsay’s successful re-election bid in 1969 on the Liberal Party line, undertaken after he lost the Republican primary. Decades later, Rudy Giuliani won his 1993 election thanks in part to the Liberal Party endorsement over incumbent Democratic Mayor David Dinkins. The party’s decision was largely seen as a power move by its leader, Ray Harding, and while it got Harding’s sons jobs in the new administration, the Giuliani endorsement also put into motion the eventual demise of the party, which lost its ballot line after endorsing Andrew Cuomo for governor in 2002 and failing to get 50,000 votes, and the rise of the Working Families Party, one of the most influential fusion parties in the state, along with the Conservative and Independence parties.

In the aftermath of the Liberal Party decision to endorse Giuliani, Dan Cantor, Bob Masters and Jon Kest convinced activism organization ACORN and several New York labor unions to join forces under the new Working Families Party umbrella and endorse Peter Vallone for governor in 1998. The endorsement, the beginning of the WFP’s blend of pragmatism and progressivism as American Prospect noted, worked as Vallone got just over the 50,000 votes on the WFP line the party needed to secure a statewide ballot line for at least the next four years. The party’s existence as a left flank with the Democrats allowed voters who wanted to express those left tendencies to have a voice in the Democratic firmament, and the WFP has managed to elect a City Council member, Letitia James, on their line and put their cross-endorsed stamp of approval on Mayor Bill de Blasio, Comptroller Scott Stringer, James -- now the Public Advocate and likely next Attorney General -- and members of the City Council Progressive Caucus. Candidates have regularly secured thousands more votes on the WFP line than there are registered members of the WFP eligible, meaning many Democrats choose to vote WFP to indicate their support for the party and its efforts to move Democrats left. By having a ballot line to offer, the WFP is able to influence Democratic candidates on its issues.

But the WFP’s victories on a citywide level haven’t been replicated on the statewide level, at least in terms of influencing progressive bête noire Andrew Cuomo. From the start of his successful gubernatorial runs, Cuomo has had a fraught relationship with the party, though he’s now on its ballot line for the third straight election.

Unlike the previous two elections in which he got the WFP line, Cuomo and the WFP’s mutual frustration with each other boiled over into the party nominating Cynthia Nixon in an effort to either shock the world and have their chosen leftist as the Democratic nominee or at least push Cuomo leftward, and Cuomo allegedly threatening progressive organizations that had been critical of him. The feud between the two sides cooled down enough after the very heated primary to allow the WFP to offer Cuomo its line in November, though -- in an indication of the messiness of fusion voting -- having to move Nixon off the line and into an Assembly election spot has led to other headaches.

The party had a well-publicized argument with Joe Crowley over his refusal to leave its ballot line after it endorsed him over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, since under New York State law candidates can only be removed from a ballot line if they transfer to another race, move out of their district, or die, a trio of options Crowley found unappealing. And while the WFP notched a series of victories in efforts to depose six the of eight members of the state Senate Independent Democratic Conference, some of those members are lingering or outright running in the general election on ballot on lines like those of the Independence Party and Women’s Equality Party.

While only Tony Avella has announced his intention to mount a vigorous general election campaign, Democratic Party bosses were rumored to have dangled judgeships to Senators Jeff Klein and Jesse Hamilton in order to persuade them to step away from the ballots, blatantly undemocratic horse-trading that also would have rewarded a state Senator, Klein, who was accused earlier this year of forcibly kissing a staffer. Those moves have not been made, and neither Klein or Hamilton has officially declared their general election intentions.

Perhaps sensing an opportunity to assert their power, the Democratic establishment across New York is making noise about ending fusion.

“Call it CON-fusion voting” Democratic consultant Bob Liff wrote in the Daily News in the wake of the Crowley situation, calling the practice transactional as opposed to reformist as it exists in New York. The practice only exists as an avenue for patronage, wrote Joshua Spivak of the Hugh Carey Institute for Government Reform, and third parties could actually grow without fusion.

Norman Green, chair of the Chautauqua County Democratic Party, wrote that the practice encourages corruption on a local level and a tail wags the dog situation on a statewide level, and the Erie County Democratic Town Chairs Association called for an end to Wilson-Pakula because of what they said resulted in overstuffed ballots featuring the same candidates on a series of different ballot lines.

State Senator Diane Savino, one of the original founders of the Working Families Party and Independent Democratic Conference, who in an ironic twist saw the WFP’s organizing prowess help unseat six of her IDC allies, told the Daily News that a Democratic Senate majority should explore including ending fusion voting as part of electoral reform efforts because the practice pulls candidates too far left or right.

A spokesperson for Governor Cuomo, who cites election reform as a top 2019 priority, did not respond to a question on whether ending fusion voting would be on his agenda if he wins reelection this year.

So is fusion on the way out?

“It's nothing new,” Mike Long, the chair of the New York State Conservative Party, told Gotham Gazette. “The Conservative Party has been in business since 1962, I've heard those cries over the 50-some-odd years. I hear those cries every governor's race for sure, especially when independent parties nominate someone other than those who think they should be crowned.”

As it typically does, the Conservative Party has cross-endorsed the Republican nominee for governor, Marc Molinaro. Like the WFP on the left, the Conservative Party is seen on the right as an important seal of approval and a force that pulls away from the middle.

Recent history is on Long’s side. Governor Cuomo floated the idea of nixing Wilson-Pakula in 2013 in the wake of a bribery scandal involving Malcolm Smith attempting to buy his way onto the Republican ballot line for the New York City mayoral election.

The effort ran into resistance from the smaller parties and reform groups like Common Cause New York and the Brennan Center for Justice and never went anywhere. And Bill Lipton, the Working Families Party’s political director in New York, says current anti-fusion sentiment is misplaced, especially given there are other reforms the state can make.

“We think fusion is a good idea that allows a minority viewpoint to have a say, and that gives voters who don’t find their views fully represented by either major party a political home,” he told Gotham Gazette. “The real issue is the bizarre set of laws that govern how candidates can get off the ballot, and those do need to be fixed,” Lipton said, referring to the die, move, or change races stipulations that allow someone to come off a ballot.

But this year’s frustration with the practice among progressives and good government advocates doesn’t stop at ballot law shenanigans, and extends to critiques about third parties run like local fiefdoms and prominent but ideology-free parties using fusion to gain prominence.

“This isn't about pushing third parties and their values,” said Rachel Barnhart, a journalist turned politician who’s run for several offices in Rochester and is currently working on Stephanie Miner’s independent bid for governor, about fusion voting. “It's about keeping a place at the table, it's about power-brokering. The Working Families Party has given perfunctory interviews and then just given the nod to the person they already know. These parties that exist to just extract money from powerful parties, and it handicaps people trying to defeat the establishment.”

Barnhart had especially harsh words for the WFP-endorsed Joe Morelle, the Rochester Assembly member and current Democratic nominee to replace the late Louise Slaughter in Congress, and his relationship with the Conservative Party of Monroe County, suggesting there was some kind of agreement between the candidate and party to make sure he often ran unopposed in his Assembly races, a frequent circumstance in those races. Democrats have a big registration advantage in Morelle’s district, and he has run unopposed for years, while state campaign finance records show donations given to the Conservative Party of Monroe County by both Morelle and various local Democratic Party organizations.

“It might have been a personal donation or whatever, I know he was friendly with the party leader up there, but I can’t speak to why he gave money to the Conservative Party,” Long said when asked about the donations. Told that Morelle ran unopposed, Long said, “I guess two and two makes four, maybe that’s why he donated some money.”

Using local parties as a kind of personal fiefdom is enough of a concern for even some allies of groups that rely on fusion.

“The baseline position among [good government groups] is fusion voting is a bad thing,” said Gus Christensen of the organization No IDC, which helped lead campaign efforts against the former IDC members. “Forgetting whether it benefits Democrats or Republicans in whatever election, it empowers some deeply corrupt and non-representative individuals who run these parties and small groups.”

Even fusion advocates see the occasional weakness in the system. “You can look at the Conservative Party and get a platform from us and know where we stand on all the issues,” Long said, when asked about the issue of minor parties and ideology. “You can look at the Working Families Party, our philosophical opposite, and see where they stand. No one knows where the Reform Party stands or what issues are important to them. It's pretty hard when a party endorses far left and in the next breath they support very conservative candidates. Certainly the Independence Party doesn't have a whole host of issues or an agenda they're trying to promote.”

New York’s Independence Party has come under criticism for years due to what critics say is a membership driven more by confusion from voters who think they’re registering merely as “independent” -- the party boasts over 436,612 active registered voters, outpacing all the other parties in New York except Democrats and Republicans. It has also been run by fringe political figures who’ve gotten the ear of mainstream candidates banking on the almost half a million people registered with the party, prominence that inspired a weeklong Daily News investigation into the party.

And while Christensen dismissed the chances of any of the former IDC members mounting a successful challenge on a third party line, he said when it comes to statewide offices, the WFP’s clout was neutralized by the existence of these other third parties.

“The pull of the Independence and Reform parties for the more right-wing members of our party, they pull people like Andrew Cuomo to the right in a way that's much more significant to the lives of New Yorkers because he can't stop hearing the siren song of the Independence and Reform endorsements. So I think there's an emerging view that it's a net-negative for progressive politics in New York State. That as much as there's a benefit from the WFP getting to use fusion voting, it’s more than offset by the damage done by the Independence Party and the Reform Party.”

It’s a weakness in the coalition-building attempts that has some people demanding more wholesale change. The WFP’s endorsement of Cuomo crossed from pragmatism to cynicism for some, including Green Party gubernatorial nominee Howie Hawkins, who issued a statement calling the WFP’s attempt the pull the Democratic Party left a “futile effort” and invited socialist and progressive voters to fill in the circle for him instead.

Barnhart is also challenging third parties to stand on their own. “New York State has kept this because keeping fusion voting means you're keeping both [major] parties strong. They don't want to have to deal with a strong independent candidate. You never know what could happen with a third party, and that's why New York State makes it so difficult to establish a ballot line and that's why they do fusion voting. Because these third parties just wind up being cogs of a party machine.”

It’s not as simple as that, though, according to Lipton, who said the realities of America’s electoral system are what make fusion necessary. “Our first-past-the-post electoral system doesn’t exist in most countries,” he said. “It’s arguably undemocratic, because even a party that gets 49 percent of the vote sees no representation. Fusion is good for democracy because it gives minority viewpoints a fair shot to participate in the electoral process.”

And that current reality of an electoral system that lays out the choice between being an unheard minority or a spoiler means that fusion as practiced by the Working Families and Conservative parties can also come in for praise by good government activists.

"I think that the Working Families Party and the Conservative Party are the best example of how fusion can work and is beneficial,” Alex Carmada, the senior policy adviser for Reinvent Albany, told Gotham Gazette. “They're true in their beliefs, they've existed for a long time, and they don't play the role of spoilers."

The relatively new Reform Party in New York has indeed endorsed a strange mix of candidates, including Molinaro and Democratic Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, but it does have several clearly outlined principles, mostly focused on government reform, like term limits for elected officials. The party, which is not formally affiliated with the national Reform Party by the larger group’s choice, was only created in 2014 by then-Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino, who launched the Stop Common Core Party, earned 50,000 votes on the line, then changed its name to Reform after the election. It has just 1802 active voters registered as Reform across the entire state, but it has a ballot line.

Something somewhat similar took place with Cuomo’s Women’s Equality Party, which he created in 2014 as an election gimmick and to hurt the WFP, even as he appeared on both ballot lines, along with the Democratic and Independence party lines. Cuomo earned just over 50,000 on the WEP line and will again appear on it this year, though he does not appear to have mentioned it yet this year on the campaign trail (he has loaned it some money, however, from his campaign account).

Carmada said it’s all life under fusion.

"The Stop Common Core Party is the equivalent of the WEP, an of-the-moment election issue that becomes a party and then its usefulness diminishes by the next election. Especially for Stop Common Core, the original message was not sustainable, but the system we have in New York encourages the creation of these of-the-moment parties," Carmada said.

If the end of fusion is near though, Long at least was copacetic about the future of the Conservative Party.

“Just because the insiders do away with fusion voting, doesn't mean the minor parties go out of business,” he said. “We’ll run our own candidates for governor, United States Senate. We did that in the beginning and we can do it again. The Conservative Party has done that off and on quite often.”

by Dave Colon, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated. 

Is this the Election that Kills Fusion Voting in New York? Thu, 11 Oct 2018 04:00:00 +0000