Commentary: To Threaten Fusion Voting Is To Threaten Democracy

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By Gerard Kassar, State Chairman, New York State Conservative Party

With all eyes on Washington these days, the mice are at play in Albany. What they’re up to would make New York’s old Tammany Hall characters green with envy.

A brazen and unlawful ploy to snuff out dissenting speech and political competition in New York elections is in motion right before our averted eyes. The players: Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his handpicked Democratic State Chairman Jay Jacobs, who also serves as the Nassau County Democratic Party chairman. They must be stopped for the sake of democracy.

The target is New York’s smaller political parties — the so-called third parties — that have long been a thorn in the Democratic Party’s side. Mostly, for this governor, it’s the progressive Working Families Party, which endorsed his 2018 primary challenger for governor, activist and actress Cynthia Nixon, and made him sweat for its endorsement in 2014 in the face of a challenge from law professor Zephyr Teachout.

The vehicle is a commission ostensibly tasked with laying out a plan to bring taxpayer-financed political campaigns to New York, hence its moniker — The New York Public Campaign Finance Commission. But make no mistake about it, this commission has clear instructions: Permanently kneecap New York’s third parties by taking away their ability to cross-endorse candidates running on major party lines, a practice known as fusion voting, which has been occurring in New York for more than 100 years.

The Working Families Party and state Conservative Party — parties that agree on pretty much nothing normally — have each filed lawsuits asserting the long-established constitutionality of fusion voting in the Empire State. The state constitution also makes it clear that only the state Legislature can change state election laws. The Conservative Party further argues that the commission itself is an illegally constituted sham, refusing to even recognize it. It also strongly opposes tax dollars being used in political campaigns, again noting that only legislatures can enact new laws.

Cuomo comically feigns disinterest in this matter, telling reporters this week that what happens with fusion voting is immaterial to him — this from the man who engineered the commission’s creation, handpicked the state Democratic chairman to lead it and has announced plans to run for a fourth term as governor. Classic Andrew Cuomo. One has to give him credit for keeping a straight face.

And get this: The Democratic Party-led commission’s first act was to rule that any proposals emanating from it would be bundled into a single vote of its commissioners, a majority of whom want public financing. The Cuomo administration further maintains that the vote of the commission will constitute state law unless the Legislature returns for a special session in December to challenge its findings or assert its legislative prerogative.

The stakes before the public are enormous. Free speech and the free exchange of ideas would be severely curtailed in New York if Cuomo’s commission isn’t stopped. The Democratic Party machine is working to de-democratize New York for its and Cuomo’s advantage, and it’s doing it while the Legislature is out of session. Alarm bells should be ringing all across the state.

Fusion voting was one of New York’s earliest good-government reforms. It was enacted more than a century ago to help combat Tammany Hall corruption, and it has thrice been upheld by state court decisions. It gives New Yorkers the power to send a clear ideological message to the major-party candidates and to hold them accountable when they fail to deliver on their promises. These parties also serve as incubators for ideas and as platforms for dissenting political speech, our most cherished constitutional commodity.

New Yorkers who follow politics are watching every move in Washington with rapt attention. Meanwhile, the deck is being reshuffled by the house in Albany while virtually no one is looking. It shouldn’t take lawsuits to stop something that is clearly undemocratic and wrong.

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