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OpinionCommentary

Allow fusion voting and open up the political process

Voting booths at West Babylon Junior High School

Voting booths at West Babylon Junior High School on Nov. 3, 2015. Credit: Barry Sloan

It takes big money to run for political office in New York, especially for statewide office. The current campaign financing system erects too many barriers that intimidate and discourage qualified people from seeking public office. Let’s tear down those obstacles and open the path.

After years of proposals falling to the wayside, New York finally has taken a significant step toward reform and created the New York State Public Campaign Financing Commission. The commission has held hearings around the state to collect ideas on what changes might work. Some of the ideas are smart, some are practical, and many are way overdue. I submitted testimony to the commission because New Yorkers deserve change.

But I urge the commission to focus on the urgent issue of campaign finance, which will truly make a difference, and leave fusion voting alone.

I support fusion voting. It is a net positive for New York.

Fusion voting is a mechanism by which third parties have the option to cross-endorse major-party candidates. It has a strong history in New York; even Gov. Franklin Roosevelt had multiparty endorsements. Fusion voting shakes up the two-party system that many say has too tight a rein on our political structure. It gives voters a broader choice, yet still allows them to cast a vote for an electable candidate who supports the issues they care about.

Not everyone affiliates as a Democrat or Republican, so let’s support a system that allows them to have a choice on which party line to vote. Eliminating fusion voting would narrow the options of parties to nominate the candidates they want, and individual voters clearly are the losers because their options are limited.

Some argue the state should not step in and tell third parties who they can or cannot endorse. I agree. Let the voters decide. The Conservative, Working Families and Independence parties have played roles in several key political races and should not be regulated to the sidelines by commission fiat. What the threshold should be for third parties to have ballot access may be a fair question for the State Legislature to consider.

So which reforms would really make an impact? Start with voluntary public campaign financing for all state offices. I’ve pushed for this for years because it would reduce the influence of special interests and wealthy donors on state government. Public campaign financing also would strengthen our democracy and our political process by making it easier for more New Yorkers to run for office.

New York trails the nation in this area. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 14 states offer some form of public financing for campaigns, reducing the influence of big donors while providing greater opportunity for a more diverse pool of candidates.

New York City has operated under a voluntary publicly funded system for more than 20 years with many elements that could serve as a good model for the state. For example, the city’s program matches small-dollar donations with public funds and limits spending.

It provides citizens who do not have access to established political fundraising circles with the ability to raise money and compete in elections. Providing incentives for smaller contributions also drives candidates to focus on grassroots donors. New York State’s currrent high contribution limits allow statewide candidates to accept donations greater than the median New York family’s household income. This is not fair.

Let’s stem the influence of campaign donations on the political process and governmental decision-making. Public campaign financing would allow candidates and elected officials to compete on a more even playing field and to make decisions without the undue influence of large campaign contributors, helping to remove the perception of pay-to-play. It fosters our ability to bring different viewpoints and perspectives to Albany for the good of all New Yorkers. Public financing is a sound investment in a more open and transparent government.

New York State needs to build a foundation of public trust by enacting meaningful campaign finance reform. Let 2019 be the year our state finally opens up the political process.

Thomas P. DiNapoli of Great Neck Plaza is New York State comptroller.

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