Crain’s New York Business
By Leo Hindery Jr. and Susan Lerner
April 15, 2012
In 2010, the United States Supreme Court made a decision that has had a devastating impact on our democracy. The high court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission recognized corporations as natural persons, protected under the First Amendment and thus entitled to free speech. In so doing, the court handed a small group of corporate executives (unions don’t have nearly as much money) extraordinary power in the democratic process.
At the same time, the court indirectly paved the way for the formation of “super PACs” to raise unlimited amounts of money for specific candidates or causes. Although required to identify their contributors, actual givers too often are masked through the use of intermediaries.
Against this tsunami of mostly anonymous money, how can ordinary citizens compete for politicians’ attention, however noble the cause? Instead of government by and for the people, we now have government bought and paid for by special interests.
On the state level, there are equally insidious campaign finance laws in desperate need of reform. For example, New York state—in so many ways the nation’s most important role model—needs to quickly divorce itself from its unholy union of politics and money.
The state now has the highest contribution limits in the country ($60,800 for a statewide race), which means that big-money corporate and individual donors have significant influence in deciding who gets elected and what laws are passed. This counterproductive race to the top—perhaps better termed as a race to the bottom—means that wealthy oligarchs determine the issues while the appropriate political needs of less well-heeled businesses, organizations and individuals go unattended.
While we await the Supreme Court’s reversing or limiting its pernicious decision, we can clean up Albany by establishing a voluntary system of public financing of elections like the one we have in New York City, which diminishes the importance of large campaign contributions. Simply by encouraging candidates to raise money from small donors and then matching those donations with public funding, candidates don’t have to rely on large contributions from special interests in order to be elected.
A recent Siena poll showed that 74% of New Yorkers from across the state and the political spectrum want fairer elections. And New York City’s proven public financing system will provide them.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has made statewide campaign finance reform a priority, so let’s act now. It’s past time to take the “For sale” signs off our state Capitol and return democracy to the people.
Leo Hindery Jr. is managing partner of InterMedia Partners and a member of the Common Cause New York board. Susan Lerner is the executive director of Common Cause New York.