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No, Fusion Voting Won’t Make Public Financing of Elections More Expensive

Concerns that fusion voting, which allows candidates to run on multiple lines for the same office, and a public financing program might jointly be unsustainable reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the way the policy works.

March 19, 2019

In the next two weeks, we’ll find out if Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legis­lature will live up to their prom­ises to deliver small donor public finan­cing of elec­tions in New York State. Passage would have huge reper­cus­sions – it is by far the biggest reform possible to counter the influ­ence of big money and give greater polit­ical power to regu­lar New York­ers. Things look prom­ising: the governor included a solid proposal in the budget, and the Senate and Assembly major­it­ies both stated in their “one-house” budgets that they also support a small donor public finan­cing program.

In a nutshell, small donor public finan­cing works like this: candid­ates who choose to parti­cip­ate in the public finan­cing program agree to lower contri­bu­tion limits (no more massive dona­tions from lobby­ists and special interests). In exchange, for each small contri­bu­tion from an in-state resid­ent, a candid­ate for office would receive six times that in public money. A contri­bu­tion of $10 is worth $70. This funda­ment­ally changes the source of campaign dollars for candid­ates and office­hold­ers. The Campaign Finance Insti­tute estim­ates this program could make small dona­tions the biggest source of money for legis­lat­ive candid­ates, and it would cost less than a penny per day per New Yorker.

But reform, partic­u­larly a reform as import­ant as this one, is never easy. We’re already hear­ing murmurs about why maybe this can’t be done – at least right now. (A favor­ite way to kill reform in Albany is to prom­ise it will come “one day,” just not today.)

Some in Albany have raised concerns that because New York State offers fusion voting, which allows candid­ates to run on multiple lines for the same office, public finan­cing for elec­tions could become very expens­ive. One candid­ate could receive campaign funds for each line she’s running on. Or maybe she’ll be running in primar­ies for multiple party nomin­a­tions – would­n’t that be unsus­tain­able?

In fact, these concerns reflect a funda­mental misun­der­stand­ing of the way the policy works. Public match­ing funds don’t go to parties or primary contests, they go to candid­ates. And they only go to candid­ates who reach qual­i­fy­ing thresholds (by collect­ing a minimum number of small dona­tions from constitu­ents to show real viab­il­ity) and who continue to collect dona­tions that can be matched. The amount of public funds a candid­ate can receive is capped.

The number of parties on the ballot is irrel­ev­ant to all of this. And a candid­ate does­n’t get more money because she’s listed on more than one ballot line.

Inter­est­ingly, two of the biggest juris­dic­tions with success­ful public finan­cing programs, New York City and Connecti­cut, both have fusion voting. Neither has had a prob­lem with candid­ates receiv­ing more money because they are running on more than one line.

In sum, there’s noth­ing special about having fusion voting and public finan­cing of elec­tions. Fusion voting does­n’t make public finan­cing more expens­ive. New York City and Connecti­cut both have fusion voting and success­ful public finan­cing programs.