New York state politics appears to be rife with systematic corruption, a truth underscored by the fact that two of New York’s most powerful politicians—Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former State Senate Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos–will soon be headed to trial for corruption. What can be done about this? Federal government involvement may do some good, as the federal prosecutions of Silver and Skelos demonstrate; U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara is conducting many other investigations that have sent a chill of fear through Albany’s corrupt actors. Yet the threat of prosecution alone might not be enough, which as led many people, including contributors to this blog, to suggest a range of other reforms designed to reduce the motive or opportunity for New York state politicians to exploit their power for private gain. Such proposals include reducing or eliminating the ability of legislators to receive outside income, pinpointing the problem that Albany is far removed from the cultural and business heart of New York, and introducing term limits for state legislators.
Yet there is another reform possibility that has not been discussed much and might be more practical than it initially seems: activists devoted to fighting corruption could create an additional political party in effectively one-party districts. There are many political activists in New York who care deeply about good governance. For example, State Senator Liz Krueger started a “No Bad Apples” PAC to “recruit, train and support progressive, reform-minded candidates for the New York State Senate.” Enthusiasm and resources that now go to efforts like that within one of the two major parties could instead be channeled to the creation of “No Bad Apples”-type parties in one-party districts. It would make sense for progressive activists to create spin-off parties to contest safe Democratic seats and conservative activists to create spin-off parties to contest safe Republican ones.
In developed democracies, two main incentives (besides personal conscience) serve to dissuade elected officials from corruption: the fear of prosecution and the fear of losing an election. Removing one of those prongs removes a lot of the incentive for elected officials to refrain from corrupt behavior. Yet in New York, many corrupt state legislators have little to fear from the electorate. Consider, for example, the fact that in the last election, Sheldon Silver won 82.4% of the vote in his assembly district. Malcolm Smith, the former Democratic minority leader of the State Senate convicted of corruption, won his last election before the scandal came to light with 100% of the vote and was only taken down in a primary. Pedro Espada, a former member of the State Senate who is now serving five years in prison for embezzlement, served in such a Democratic district that, during his last successful campaign, no Republican ran against him. (The Espada district has particular notoriety, as three State Senators in a row from that district ended up in prison.) Another New York state senator convicted of felonies in 2015, John Sampson, saw his closest opponent pull in 7.2% of the vote.
Clearly, electoral competition is not something that many of these politicians have to worry about. That is because, while New York as a state has plenty of voters from each party, geographical concentration (largely Democratic voters in New York City and Republican voters in rural areas of the state) creates many districts where there is effectively only one political party. Fortunately, New York law already makes it relatively easy for third parties to emerge. As a consequence, good government party activists in districts where one party is overwhelmingly dominant can and should encourage the party to split—preferably along ideological lines (so that in Democratic districts, for example, a center-left party would contest elections against a progressive party, though both representatives from both parties would align with the Democratic bloc in the state legislature, just like Bernie Sanders, elected as a socialist, does in the U.S. Senate). While it is of course true that the first-past-the-post system used to elect New York state legislators typically works against the viability of third-party candidates, in these overwhelmingly lopsided existing districts, splitting the Democratic or Republican parties would be more like adding a second party than adding a third. In Sheldon Silver’s district, for example, a second progressive party would gather far more votes than the Republicans.
Moreover, under this scheme if one party – either the Democrats or the Republicans – adopted this plan solo, it would not harm them as long as it was limited to currently one-party districts. The combined new progressive Democratic party and center-left Democratic party would have the same number of seats as the current Democratic party, even if Republicans failed to follow suit. Since it would be disadvantageous to have two parties on one side of the spectrum in any swing district, the parties would have to have an agreement among themselves to only field one candidate in each of those races. Therefore, a fear of tipping the majority to the other party should not hinder activists from creating additional parties as it will not harm either the Democrats or the Republicans state wide. And, even though incumbents in currently safe districts might not like this plan, the party as a whole would benefit, if greater levels of intra-district political competition improve the quality and integrity of elected candidates and reduce the number of scandals that damage the party’s overall “brand.”
One might plausibly object to this proposal on the grounds that New York already has plenty of smaller parties, and on the grounds that the major party primaries already create a forum for intra-party competition within districts. (Indeed, as noted above, corrupt State Senator Pedro Espada was ousted in a primary—by a fantastic anticorruption candidate, Gustavo Rivera.) Don’t these features of the New York political landscape already supply the competition that the above proposal is meant to produce? Or, to flip this around, given that neither existing third parties nor major party primaries seem to have reined in corruption by New York’s elected state officials, why should we suppose that splitting the major parties in lopsided districts would make much difference?
With respect to existing third parties, it is true that New York does have many smaller parties, but they frequently cross-endorse a major party candidate. New York is one of the only states that allows candidates to combine all votes they receive on all party lines that endorse them. While some of the smaller parties occasionally put up their own candidates, some (like the Conservative Party) frequently endorse the Republican nominee and some (like the Working Families Party) frequently endorse the Democratic nominee. Others, like the Independence party (which many voters think means ”unaffiliated”), vie for influence by sometimes nominating one major party candidate and sometimes nominating the other. While there have been some highly entertaining fully independent parties (“The Rent is Too Damn High” Party comes to mind), New York has yet to have any credible parties that largely nominate outside of the Democratic and Republican candidates for State Senate and Assembly races in one-party districts.
As for the major-party primaries, there are two reasons the threat of a primary challenge hasn’t been very effective in disciplining corrupt incumbents. First, even in effectively one-party districts, where the primary determines the real winner, turnout in primaries is usually far lower than in general elections. The few who do turn out may be more invested in the current way of doing things and in the incumbent than the general electorate is. Second, each party has its own county committees and people who are used to working with each other; in those circles, challenging an incumbent is often frowned upon, leaving a good government candidate little way to build the support needed to prevail in a primary. An additional party would allow for the buildup of parallel structures that would enable more people to challenge incumbents (particularly corrupt incumbents).
Of course, new parties would not spring fully formed across the state like Athena from the head of Zeus. Instead, both for feasibility and for proof of concept, activists within either one or a handful of one-party districts with particularly corrupt incumbents could organize to run a third party race to get the ball rolling to restore an electoral check on corruption. If it works, other activists would have more of a reason to spread the concept to one-party districts across the state.
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Sarah, thanks for this wonderful post. I like your idea because I think it avoids many of the classic criticisms of similar arguments. First, it’s not clear, to my mind, that adding more parties and increasing competitiveness necessarily reduces corruption. (Many countries with multiple parties, highly competitive elections, and systemic corruption spring to mind). But here, increasing competitiveness against a specific anticorruption party probably would. By definition you are electing people, or forcing people to compete against, individuals who’s specific platform centers on fighting corruption. Second, there is another argument about whether people will really support candidates just because they are running on a corruption-specific platform — Larry Lessig’s failed presidential campaign springs to mind. However, the problem in Albany is so bad and so endemic that I can (maybe) see people voting on the corruption issue alone.
All that said, I’m pretty cynical about whether your proposal will ever be seriously tried, much less successful. However, I am all for someone giving it a go and proving me wrong.
Thanks for this, Courtney. In the plan I am envisioning, voters would not have to vote solely on an anti corruption platform. Instead, you would get basically a center left and a progressive left party running against each other in what is currently a 98% democratic district. While the new party would make corruption a focus, I think you are right that it is hard to sustain a party on one issue alone. This way there’s a greater chance it could last.
Your suggestions for addressing the impunity of corrupt leaders in single-party districts have implications beyond US districts to developing countries like India facing similar issues. In the US context, it can help bring back disillusioned voters back to polls and lessen the growing ideological polarization in politics. However, few issues could affect the viability of your proposal:
1. Single-party districts are often created by design: Many single-party districts evolve out of clever gerrymandering over a period of time. When someone has invested time and effort to create a system that suits vested interests, chances are that they would spare no resources to torpedo any counter effort.
2. Entry barriers: Assuming that the proposal does get through and third parties do emerge, in the money-driven politics of US, their potential to win and pose a credible threat could depend a lot on their capacity to raise campaign funds.
Sharing an interesting Brookings paper which has some radical election reform proposals which can complement your proposal. http://content.thirdway.org/publications/372/Third_Way_Report_-_The_Still_Vital_Center.pdf
Sarah, this is a very interesting approach. As others commenters have pointed out, there are concerns, but they could be solved by adding additional safeguards to your proposal.
To echo a bit what Nayana said about the entry barriers, ability of these newly created parties to raise funds would be central. And as you mentioned, to constitute a credible threat the party has to be credible. Pursuant to that, it appears that the greater chance to constitute a credible political threat would be for this new party not to be created from scratch. I wonder what kind of incentive could be given to politicians who are part of well-established parties for them to create a new independent branch.
Good ground covered in the other comments so far. I’m also somewhat skeptical, but not living in New York, I might be underestimating the extent to which people are fed up with corruption. I appreciate your response to the concern that if primaries haven’t sorted out the issue then third parties wouldn’t do much either–but I’m not fully convinced. Your theory (about primary voters being more invested in the current system) could be true, but I could also see the hardcore party activists who turn out at primaries being willing to toss out establishment candidates that frustrate them (see, e.g., the Tea Party)…perhaps even more so, if primary voters are more concerned about, say, ideological purity (and corruption seems to run against that purity, no matter what the ideology). If that’s the case–and it might not be, but if it is—I’m not sure that third party candidates founding their campaigns on anticorruption would be any more likely to be elected than same-party primary opponents with a similar anticorruption drive.
Fascinating idea. I share some of the skepticism laid out above in terms of whether the proposal is viable in the current political climate. One question that comes to mind if this proposal successfully elects anticorruption candidates, what additional controls (aside from prosecution and electoral sanction) are in place to prevent a newly elected, seemingly non-corrupt, representative from falling into the habits of the institution, rather than reforming it.
Along these lines, what are your thoughts on the concerns that the benefits of institutional experience—from veteran lawmakers—are undermined when it is too easy to defeat incumbents. Of course, that is not a problem New York or any other state is close to approaching, given that incumbents are almost always reelected with wide margins. However, one could see the political dynamic you propose as creating pseudo-term limit. That is, even a non-corrupt representative is likely to make tough political decisions unpopular in the district out of necessity, and if there are always enhanced risks of being defeated in reelection, this would presumably increase the likelihood that representatives will either have shorter terms or too often vote in the direction of public opinion rather than public interest.
Of course, these potential concerns are beyond the scope of the post, but I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the potential broad, long-term effects of making the electoral sanction more powerful in an effort to deter political corruption.
As others have said, this is a really interesting approach. Other commenters have already covered a variety of the potential concerns. To echo a bit of what Nathan has said above, I wonder if the new challenger would be seen as a one-time fix, or whether the challenge would need to be mounted continuously, or whether there might be a cycle–needing to challenge the incumbent in each case where he or she has gotten too comfortable, as might tend to happen in districts that remain single-party districts.. Also, perhaps from a place of not knowing much about political strategy, I was wondering about the need for flexibility and vitality in such a new party. How bad does the situation need to be to successfully mount a campaign that focuses around addressing these issues? What would happen if a major issue became salient during the election season or a “crisis” happened that turned voters’ worries in a different direction?
I similarly wonder about the ongoing adaptability of the approach. To take the comment in a slightly different direction, though, I would be curious to know your thoughts on whether this approach with new parties is preferable to other types of (similarly politically difficult) reforms that you seem to mention above (or you might disagree with the characterization that implementing a different party system is largely aspirational). Some of what I’ve been reading with respect to Albany is about the LLC loophole, which the media seems to point to for a lot of corruption-facilitation, but in some ways, the flow of funds through this loophole is just one part of a broader culture that’s tolerant of corruption, so I’m curious to know your thoughts on the party-based reforms versus other ones that have been mentioned. One other point that I was thinking with respect to party reforms was whether the system of challenging of allegedly corrupt incumbents might mean that replacements would happen somewhat piecemeal, which may mean that the “three men in a room” culture might take a while to change. I’m not sure if that’s necessarily the way a party-based system would have to play out, but I do wonder about the most effective ways to change a culture of corruption.
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