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.