Our democracy in New York State is at a crossroads.
While we recognize that the recent increased level of political engagement is a positive development for our democracy, our optimism must be tempered by the reality that New York State has historically maintained some of the most anti-democratic voting laws in the nation. While the State Legislature and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo strengthened our democracy by passing voting reform legislation in the last legislative session, there is still much work to be done.
The most significant step New York can take now to strengthen our democracy is to finally ban the practice of fusion voting. Under state law, candidates for public office may appear under multiple party lines. It is legal to simultaneously appear on the Democratic, Republican, Independence and Conservative party lines, effectively guaranteeing victory.
We have seen the pernicious impact of fusion voting in Suffolk County. Tom Spota was repeatedly re-elected as district attorney through fusion voting. Spota, who is under federal criminal indictment and awaiting trial, went through three election cycles unaccountable to the people of Suffolk County because he ran with the endorsement of all of the major and minor parties.
In his last race in 2013, Spota was given the endorsement of the Conservative Party in a deal engineered by then-county chairman Edward Walsh, who was indicted in 2015 and later convicted. In a pre-trial memo, the U.S. attorney's office accused Spota of protecting Walsh from prosecution by refusing to investigate credible allegations against him. In short, Spota protected Walsh, and Walsh helped guarantee Spota’s election by handing him the Conservative Party ballot line. That’s fusion voting.
Fusion voting has not only corrupted our politics, but it also has eroded the independence of our judiciary. New York is one of only a handful of states where judicial candidates run for office in partisan elections and the only state that permits fusion voting in judicial races. This system ensures that most judges are effectively selected in backroom deals long before voters get their say on Election Day. As the former New York State Chief Judge Sol Wachtler said in an opinion piece in Newsday, “By keeping this system and refusing to pass legislation to prevent fusion voting, New York has all but eliminated an independent judiciary.”
If New York is serious about criminal justice reform, then we must change the way we select judges. There is no doubt that there are some talented and highly qualified judges on the bench today, but over the last few years, our method of judicial selection also has given us the gambling judge, the texting judge and the panty-stealing judge. The gambling judge was censured for attending illegal poker games and lost reelection, while the texting judge, who was caught giving advice to prosecutors on how to try cases against criminal defendants, chose not to seek reelection. The good news — for them — is that they were both welcomed back into our court system with six-figure salaries. Most recently, the panty-stealing judge pleaded guilty to a felony charge of second-degree attempted burglary.
To be clear, a ban on fusion voting would not eliminate the ability of minor parties to exist. In fact, nothing in the law would prevent minor parties from fielding candidates for office.
One important result of a fusion-voting ban is that we would no longer see the same candidate endorsed by parties with diametrically opposed ideologies, which often makes a mockery of their party members. If those parties believe in their principles, they can and should put forward the best individuals to make their cases, and then let the voters decide, just as our founders intended.
New York must abolish a practice that corrupts our politics by ending fusion voting.
Steve Bellone is Suffolk County executive. He is running for reelection in November on the Democratic and Protect the Taxpayer ballot lines.
Correction: Steve Bellone is running for re-election as Suffolk County executive on the Democratic and Protect the Taxpayer ballot lines. An earlier version of this piece inadvertently omitted one of the parties.