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Why New York Needs Healthy Small Parties

After recent scandals, we need bold action from our state leaders. But reform could be sidetracked by a plan to get rid of “fusion” voting, which limits voter options and has nothing to do with recent events. Instead, Albany leaders must focus on campaign finance reform to empower voters.

Published: May 2, 2013

Originally published in New York’s Daily News. Co-authored by Miles Rapoport, president of Demos, and Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York.

The shocking allegations against four more elected officials in New York are depressing — but they provide an opportunity for bold action by our state leaders. Gov. Cuomo has proposed a new, comprehensive campaign finance law, including the creation of a voluntary, small-donor public financing system and an independent enforcement unit.

That’s the good news. But the governor’s bold proposal could be sidetracked by more timid and less helpful “reforms” now being considered in Albany, including at least one recommended by Cuomo himself. Responding to the latest arrests, some have called on New York to get rid of a process known as “fusion” voting, which has had nothing to do with the dozens of previous scandals over the last several years.

In New York, any party can endorse candidates that are members of other parties, through a process called “Wilson-Pakula.” This adds great value to our democracy by allowing smaller parties — like the Conservative, Independence or Working Families parties — to back Democrats and Republicans when they agree with their platforms.

Fusion voting has been an important part of New York’s electoral history. Without it, Mayors Fiorello LaGuardia, John Lindsay and Rudy Giuliani would not have been elected. All three needed votes from third-party voters to secure victory.

Though New York has had its share of problems with corrupt minor (and major) parties, fusion gives voters more choice and influence. Many of us may not like what these parties stand for, but when someone votes for a fusion candidate on one of those lines, they are able to send a clear signal to government without worrying that their vote won’t directly affect the outcome of a contest.

Fusion voting also makes third parties more effective. By endorsing candidates who are more likely to win, the smaller parties can hope to influence policy, expand the democratic dialogue and sometimes swing elections.

Although Cuomo has indicated his distaste for fusion voting, he has not gone so far as to call for its end. Instead, he has suggested a ban on the 66-year-old Wilson-Pakula law, which minor parties say could lead to their destruction. Under the governor’s proposal, anyone from any party could run under any line, regardless of whether they are registered with that party.

The likely result, the smaller parties say, is that the major parties will swamp them with resources and candidates, forcing them to become shells for other interests.

Those concerns must be taken seriously. Virtually every other state that allows for fusion voting, like Connecticut, Oregon and Vermont, provides special provisions for third, fourth, fifth and sixth parties to protect themselves from this kind of raiding.

As Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has signaled, the recent scandals are merely the latest of many, and have engendered an appetite and an opportunity for strong solutions. At a time when intrepid action is needed to combat corruption, we should all have a laserlike focus on the root of the corruption problem — the oversized role of money in politics.

Although money, and the influence of those who have it, can never be completely removed, stricter contribution limits with voluntary public financing of elections — the cornerstone of the governor’s campaign finance reform proposal — gets us much closer to that goal. By limiting high-dollar contributions and matching the small donations of regular New Yorkers, we can change the destructive Albany culture where money talks and big money talks loudest.

More than 25 years ago, New York City fundamentally altered the corrupting campaign finance system, which nationally has only grown worse in the decades since. Albany leaders must learn a lesson and focus on empowering voters, not limiting their options.