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OpinionEditorial

Don't miss this opportunity to reform New York State election law

A voter casts a ballot at West Babylon

A voter casts a ballot at West Babylon Junior High School on Nov. 3, 2015. Credit: Barry Sloan

The Public Finance Reform Commission is hurtling toward a Dec. 1 deadline for approving a plan to recast the state's election rules.

Tasked with creating a public campaign financing system and other key election rules, the commission is under pressure from every political faction.

What's at stake  are the high ideals of public policy and the nitty-gritty of professional politics: how money is raised, whether a candidate can be the standard-bearer for more than one party and whether minor parties should have an easy path to automatic ballot access. 

And the process may be falling apart. The commission's appointees may not be able to satisfy every faction. Even if they do, good-government groups, and those who feel harmed by the changes, may deem the plan unworthy and demand that the State Legislature return to Albany and reject it before it otherwise becomes law.

But there is still time to craft a strong plan.

A top priority is a ban on fusion voting, which allows a candidate's name on multiple ballot lines. As Long Islanders know, this engenders abuses when parties trade ballot lines for patronage or judgeships with little concern for politcal ideology. A political party should stand for something and offer a candidate who represents its views. Already, it seems commission members have caved to special interests, so the political will to ban this practice likely will not be found. The excuse that such a ban would  get caught up in litigation is a dodge.

The commission would still have a back door to stop minor parties that use their lines to extort favors by raising the 50,000-vote threshold established in 1935. That number, which gives a party an automatic ballot line in future elections,  should be increased to 150,000 to keep it in proportion to the population increase since the current threshold was adopted, and to weed out pretender parties that clutter ballots. Parties should have to meet the threshold every two years, in both presidential and gubernatorial races. 

Changing the rules for political contributions is the commission's main assignment. The proposal it tentatively approved to create a sliding scale that would match the first $250 of a contribution with $2,300 in public money seems reasonable if it is part of a broader package of reforms. Proposed contribution limits of $2,500 each in a primary and general election for State Assembly races, and $5,000 each for State Senate races, are too high. Suggested limits of $15,000 or $25,000 per donor for statewide races are, too: The limit in federal election cycles is only $5,600. Lower contribution limits for people doing business with the state are a must.

Don't put the management of a public financing system in the hands of the state's ineffective Board of Elections. An independent agency that also provides comprehensive analytics after each election so any shortcomings can be corrected is needed. The public finance system should be in place for the 2022 races, the new ballot rules for 2021. 

New York deserves an election system that vests power in the people, not in deep-pocketed contributors and self-serving political bosses. This commission still has the rare chance to provide that system. — The editorial board

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