Part good, part bad and undoubtedly incomplete, the recommendations of the state Public Finance Reform Commission are likely to stealthily become law on Dec. 22, just as the panel to fix election practices itself was created.
The commission's refusal to end fusion voting, allowing a candidate to appear on the ballot on more than one party line, is a huge mistake. New York is one of just four states that allow the practice.
The commission instead hiked the number of votes needed for a party to automatically get ballot lines from 50,000 in every gubernatorial race to 130,000, or 2 percent of the total votes cast, whichever is larger, in every presidential and gubernatorial election. This could crush minor parties like the Greens and Libertarians, which run their own candidates in support of clear ideologies, and it will not force political organizations such as the Working Families and Conservative parties to put forward their own candidates and stop trading ballot lines to major parties for patronage and power, practices that have made a farce of many Suffolk County elections.
But a higher bar for ballot access might finally kill the Independence Party, another tool of manipulative power brokers who hustle a ballot line that stands for nothing but confuses voters who want to be independent of any established party.
The biggest win from the commission's work is the creation of New York's first statewide public campaign financing system. Assembly and Senate candidates will get state-funded matches of as much as $2,300 for each $250 contribution that comes from within their districts. The taxpayer dollars max out at $175,000 for each Assembly primary and the same amount for the general election, and at $375,000 for each phase of Senate races. Candidates for statewide offices will get 6-to-1 matches on contributions up to $250, up to a maximum of $3.5 million for primaries and another $3.5 million for general elections. These are landmark changes that should allow outsiders to run viable campaigns addressing their agendas.
The lower limits on contributions to candidates created by the commission don't hurt, but won't help much, either. The new limits are $9,000 each per primary and general election for statewide offices, $5,000 each for Senate races and $3,000 each for Assembly races. But those limits are still extremely high and do little to get big money out of these races, because astronomical contributions to party committees of up to $117,300 are still allowed. The flow of big money at the core of legalized corruption in Albany remains mostly undisturbed.
When legislators report to Albany in January, they largely will return to what they left in July: a still-flawed election system in need of fixes they have both the power and the responsibility to enact. The commission created to do this for them didn't fully succeed. But the State Legislature can improve New York's election system at any time. Reform must be an ongoing process so the voters, not political parties and special interests, are served. — The editorial board