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.