New York State

Commission on public financing and fusion voting to meet

The commission that could determine the fate of the WFP and Conservative Party has its first meeting on Wednesday.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Mike Groll/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

New York is taking a first step toward reforming how state elections are funded. 

The state’s Public Campaign Financing Commission, which is holding its inaugural meeting on Wednesday at 1 p.m. at the CUNY Graduate Center, will decide whether to implement public financing for statewide and legislative offices – and if so, what that system would look like. The commission has been tasked with submitting a report with its findings by Dec. 1. 

Establishing a public campaign finance system could shake up elections in the state, and any decision made the commission could have wide reaching effects. Here’s what you need to know about the commission as its work gets underway. 

Why was the commission formed?

State financing of election campaigns was a hot topic during budget season, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders could not come to an agreement. Cuomo had said that the budget needed to include language about public campaign finance, although he had offered only lukewarm support in the past. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, while generally supportive, expressed reservations, and a bill to create such system failed to pass in his chamber. The idea has stronger supporter among state Senate Democrats. In the end, the leaders mandated the creation of commission as part of the enacted budget to hash out the details. Its recommendations will automatically go into effect unless the Legislature takes action within 20 days. 

This is not the first time that lawmakers have shifted responsibility to a commission. In 2018, Cuomo and legislators took the same approach to give themselves raises. Normally, such decisions would be passed by lawmakers, then signed by Cuomo. A group of conservatives challenged the constitutionality of the pay commission, while another charged it exceeded its mandate. Ultimately, a judge ruled that lawmakers could keep the initial raise they received, but apparently struck down the next two raises that were supposed to go into effect in 2020 and 2021.

What exactly is the new commission tasked to do?

The commission was instructed to create a public matching program and determine the public matching ratio, candidate eligibility, contribution limits for participants, and other restrictions for those who opt in. The legislation creating the commission also allocates up to $100 million annually for the implementation of whatever system, if any, the commission devises. As part of his executive budget, Cuomo proposed a 6-to-1 matching system for up to $175 from any single donor. This means that for every $1 someone contributes, the state would provide the candidate with another $6, with up to $175 matched. The governor also proposed lower overall contribution limits. 

The commission has also been tasked with addressing the issue of fusion voting, another topic of considerable debate within the state. Currently, New York is one of only a handful of states that allows the practice, which permits a single candidate to run on multiple ballot lines. It has been beneficial to several of the state’s third parties, particularly the Working Families and Conservative parties, by giving them leverage to influence a candidate’s positions – and allowing them to run a major party candidate on their line for governor, thus enabling them to receive the necessary votes to continue with official party status. Ending fusion voting would give the WFP, a powerful force for progressive politics in the state, the option of either acting as a spoiler by putting up their own candidates, something it proudly touts it has never done, or lose its status as a party and the benefits that come with it. 

The state Democratic Party earlier this year held a vote in favor of ending fusion voting, much to the chagrin of progressive activists. In July, both the WFP and the Conservative Party filed lawsuits to halt the commission’s work on fusion voting on the grounds that the Legislature overstepped its authority. 

Are there models for the commission?

New York City has long had a public matching fund system for candidates. Up until recently, the city matched funds for any city office at a rate of 6-to-1 for up to $175 per donor, just like Cuomo’s original proposal. Under a new system being phased in starting in 2019, the city now matches at a rate of 8-to-1 for up to $250 for citywide office and $175 for borough president and City Council. The change also lowered overall contribution limits. Any candidate who opts into the program must adhere to a spending limit each election cycle as well as a cap on the total amount of public funds they receive, which is something the state commission will consider as well. The matching fund program is overseen by the city Campaign Finance Board, which is separate from the city Board of Elections. The good government group Reinvent Albany recommended the state establish a similar agency to regulate a state public campaign finance system.

Who is on the commission?

The commission is comprised of nine members. Two were appointed by the governor, two each by Heastie and state Senate Majority Leader Andrew Stewart-Cousins, one apiece for the Legislature’s two minority leaders and one appointed jointly by Cuomo, Stewart-Cousins and Heastie. One of the governor’s appointees, Jay Jacobs, is also the chairman of the state Democratic Party and is a strong proponent of eliminating fusion voting. Cuomo’s other appointee, Mylan Denerstein, is his former counsel who helped lead negotiations about public campaign financing in 2014 when the issue was last debated in enearest.