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Minor parties fear state commission trying to secure more power for major parties

Nassau Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs on Feb. 13,

Nassau Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs on Feb. 13, 2019 in Garden City. Credit: Howard Schnapp

ALBANY — Critics took on a powerful state commission Tuesday for considering a proposal they said would limit or end the influence of minor parties such as the liberal Working Families Party, which has challenged Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the Democratic Party he leads.

Nassau County Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs, one of Cuomo's appointees to the Public Financing Commission, proposed changing "fusion voting" to require that political parties attract thousands more voters before they can maintain their permanent line on statewide ballots. The commission could also decide to ban fusion voting, which allows a major party candidate to seek cross-endorsement by a minor party because in New York, all votes count toward the candidate’s total. 

The proposal became a hot topic in Buffalo during the fourth and final hearing of the commission.

The panel is charged with developing a voluntary system of using state funds to help pay for political campaigns, but Cuomo and other legislative leaders also tasked the commission with looking at the merits of fusion voting. The system provides the liberal Working Families Party influence with the Democratic Party and the Conservative Party influence with the Republican Party.

Jacobs, however, proposes that minor parties face a much higher bar before they can secure a permanent place on the ballot. He said minor parties should have to attract up to 250,000 votes — five times the current threshold — to qualify for an automatic line on ballots, in a proposal first reported by The New York Times.

That could knock the Working Families Party off the automatic ballot line they’ve held for decades. In 2018, the Working Families had endorsed activist/actress Cynthia Nixon for governor against Cuomo. Cuomo defeated Nixon in the Democratic primary, but the challenge angered many of his supporters.

In an interview after Tuesday’s commission hearing, Jacobs said he’s not committed to a 250,000-vote threshold, but minor parties need to attract some higher level of votes to appear on ballots automatically. Without that automatic line, minor parties face an expensive and laborious task of securing petitions statewide to secure a ballot line in each election cycle.

Several speakers at Tuesday’s hearing said the proposal is aimed at punishing or eliminating the liberal Working Families Party, which ran a candidate against Cuomo 2018 and has battled with more centrist Democratic Party leaders.

“Fusion voting is basic to our democratic system,” said Phil Rumore, the longtime Buffalo Teachers Federation union president and a founding member of the Working Families Party. “Eliminating fusion voters allows the would-be dictators to prevail.”

On this point, the Working Families Party members had some unlikely support from state Republican Party Chairman Nick Langworthy.

Cuomo is “extracting retribution on the Working Families Party, who had the audacity to support Cynthia Nixon for governor of New York,” Langworthy said at the hearing.

Jacobs denied the effort is aimed at hurting the Working Families Party, which he said has tried to portray him as a tool of Cuomo. Instead, Jacobs said, minor parties need to show they are legitimate forces and that 50,000 votes every two years is too low a bar. He would also require minor parties to meet a new, higher threshold every two years, which could be difficult in an off-year election without any statewide candidates on the ballot.

Cuomo defended the concept Tuesday.

“This is all politics on steroids,” Cuomo said at an event in Manhattan. "Everyone has their own politics and are trying to maximize their own political advantage."

The commission plans another meeting Nov. 14 in Westchester as well as another potential meeting Nov. 15. A final meeting is set for Nov. 25. It’s report is scheduled to be final on Nov. 27, the day before Thanksgiving, and will become law 20 days later unless the Legislature returns to Albany and changes it.

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