Reforming elections or complicating the process? It depends

The 2018 elections, for Democrats at least, brought on lots of changes in the Party’s political dynamics. The progressives’ agenda invigorated the House of Representatives.  In New York State elections Democratic control of the State Senate has led to a variety of progressive legislation that some legislators had been fruitlessly pursuing for decades.

There was the decriminalization of marijuana use; tenant-oriented rent control, expanded statewide; the child victims law; equal pay legislation; the DREAM Act; and setting climate change goals, just to name a few things. Some issues died with the end of the legislative session, perhaps to be resurrected next year.

And then there was electoral reform. Primary elections were set for the last Tuesday in June so that there will be just one primary in even-numbered years.  Petitioning in winter was a challenge, particularly upstate.  Turnout was meager in last month’s primary elections, although turnout is largely driven by the excitement of a tight race.  There weren’t many.

Even in the highly charged Democratic primary for District Attorney in Queens County, which featured an establishment party-endorsed candidate versus an aggressive supercharged progressive challenger, just 91,000 votes were cast out of a total Democratic enrollment of 815,000; that’s 11 percent. The progressive candidate was ahead by 1,090 on primary night and she declared victory, but recounts have since swung in the endorsed candidate’s favor by a tiny margin.  A hand count of the results is underway, which will undoubtedly be followed by a protracted court case.

The changes in the Election Law also moved up the process for selecting candidates for State Supreme Court which for decades has occurred during the last week in September. The new schedule for the judicial nominating conventions sets them for the second week in August.  In Western New York’s 8th Judicial District there will be cross endorsements by Democrats and Republicans for incumbent Gerald Whalen (a registered Democrat) and Deborah Haendiges (a Republican).  The third incumbent running for re-election, Democrat Diane Devlin, will face Republican Gerald Greenan in November.

The consequence of the early judicial conventions will be a much longer and more expensive campaign for that office, covering 14 weeks rather than six weeks, which was the scenario in previous elections for the Supreme Court.

In the fall we will see the first use of early voting in New York State. Voters will have the opportunity to vote during nine day period (October 26 through November 3) prior to Election Day on November 5 at a limited number of voting locations.  Selection of those locations is complicated by the need for setting up voting facilities for nine days rather than one.  That probably results is some less-than-ideal arrangements, such as in the Town of Amherst, where the one early voting location will be set up in the southern end of the Town near the border with Cheektowaga, hardly a central location.

The dynamics of early voting could work to the advantage of the Democrats, but at the moment that is pure speculation. We’ll see.

And then there is the election legislation that could turn out to be much more significant than all the other changes. One of the final acts of the State Legislature before it departed Albany was the creation of the Public Campaign Financing Commission.

The main focus of the Commission is to set up the public financing for statewide and state legislative offices. Many have suggested that the plan should be modeled on New York City’s public financing arrangements.  Here is a summary of how the New York City program works as reported on the website of the New York City Campaign Finance Board:

Matching funds provide candidates with a strong incentive to finance their campaigns by engaging with average New Yorkers instead of seeking large contributions from special interests…

The voluntary public financing program matches small-dollar contributions from individuals who reside in New York City, helping to amplify the voices of New Yorkers in city elections. A $10 contribution from a NYC resident to a participating candidate in the 2021 election could be worth as much as $90 to their campaign.

Who is Eligible?

Any candidate running for municipal office (mayor, comptroller, public advocate, borough president, and city council) may join the program. The program does not cover county district attorney offices or state or federal offices.

To receive public funds, candidates must:

  • Meet a two-part fundraising threshold:
  • Collect a minimum number of contributions (of $10 or more) from the area they seek to represent. (For instance: candidates for City Council must have 75 contributors from their district; candidates for borough president must have 100 contributors from their borough.)
  • Raise a minimum amount of qualifying contributions from NYC residents (only the matchable portion of the contributions counts towards this threshold).
  • Certify agreement to and demonstrate compliance with the requirements of the Act and Board Rules.
  • Be on the ballot, and have an opponent on the ballot.
  • Submit a personal financial disclosure filing with the Conflicts of Interest BoardCandidates who seek public funds agree to abide by spending limits, which ensure money will not decide an election between participating candidates. The spending limit varies by office sought.Candidates who receive an early public funds payment may be required to return public funds if they:

 

  1. Early Payments
  2. Spending Limits & Restrictions
  1. Terminate their candidacies prior to the petitioning period;
  2. Fail to get on the ballot in the primary and/or general election;
  3. Fail to gather and submit petitions; or
  4. Eventually do not face opposition on the ballot.

Limits on Public Funds

There is a cap on the total amount of public funds available to each candidate. The cap ensures candidates use a combination of public and private funds to finance their campaigns. Candidates may only spend public funds to further their campaign, and must agree to return public funds that were not spent in accordance with the rules.

Accountability & Audits

After the election, candidates who have received public funding must return any remaining funds to the city. As a result, there are strict limits on what publicly-funded campaigns can spend after the election. All campaigns are audited, and those who receive public funds must provide a thorough accounting of the way public funds were spent…

There are nine members of the State Commission. Seven are appointed by Democratic officeholders – the Governor, the Speaker of the Assembly and the Majority Leader of the Senate.  The Republicans selected just two members.  One of the Democrats named was Jay Jacobs, the Chairman of the State Democratic Party.  That move brought protests from the new Republican State Chairman, Nick Langworthy.  It appears that he was not consulted about the Republican appointees.

The Commission has until December 1 to report its findings. The Legislature then will have just 21 days to review the Commission’s work and, if it chooses, kill the proposals.

If public financing becomes the law of the state, there could be all sorts of interesting (and expensive) results. Cost estimates range up to $100 million dollars in years when statewide offices are on the ballot.  This program would encourage multiple candidates in many races, something that incumbents may not like.  Compliance with the law will be a complicated process.

And then there would be the fate of the state’s minor parties. The Commission is also charged with looking at the state’s fusion voting system, where minor parties can endorse the candidates of the Democratic and Republican Parties.

If the Commission recommends the end of fusion voting and the Legislature concurs, the minor parties will be substantially reduced in influence. Their reason for being, which includes influence over major party candidate selection and patronage opportunities, would be gone.  Their future existence would be threatened.

For candidates who have depended on minor party line votes to put them over the top, their election chances could be reduced. Countywide Republican candidates in Erie County have owed their victories in recent years to the Conservative Party.  There have been no Republicans elected statewide without Conservative Party backing since the Party was founded in 1962.

In the end, the work of the Commission could turn out to be a waste of time and money if the Legislature turns down its findings. If the Legislature chooses not to overturn the Commission’s recommendations, however, public campaign funding and the possible end of fusion voting could turn out to be the most significant political development in New York State for years to come.