By Daniel R. Garodnick
March 6, 2012
With all of the attention being given to independent redistricting, let’s not lose focus on the related issue of campaign finance reform for New York’s elections. New York City’s campaign finance system gives us a good road map for ensuring that average New Yorkers are able to participate in political campaigns.
New York’s high contribution limits, for example $41,000 in the gubernatorial general election alone, allow wealthy New Yorkers to support candidates in a way that the average New Yorker simply cannot afford. These high limits, combined with no limit on campaign spending for candidates, make it difficult for most challengers to have a fair shot to get their message out, and reduces New Yorkers’ faith in the system.
In New York City, we have low contribution limits, which are even lower if you are engaged in business dealings with the city; an agency that audits every campaign for office; and a generous matching funds program that allows candidates without deep pockets to run for office.
Contributions from New York City residents can be matched with public dollars at a $6-to-$1 rate, up to the first $175 contributed. For example, a city contributor who gives a campaign $10 is in effect giving the campaign $70 — $10 in private dollars and $60 in public dollars.
This makes it possible for an average New Yorker to have an impact and gives candidates a reason to seek contributions from all voters, not just the biggest contributors. These factors combined have helped limit the perception of corruption in the city’s electoral politics, allowed more candidates to run for office, and led to increased civic participation. In fact, in the past three citywide elections, more than half of all contributors were first-time contributors.
While the city’s system is certainly not perfect — small donations mean more time and the reporting requirements associated with receiving public matching funds can be very onerous on campaigns big and small — the end result is good for New York City voters. We see more candidates, and more participation with small, but meaningful contributions.
Last week, 26 of my colleagues in the City Council joined me in sending a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo in support of his pledge to introduce legislation that would create a public funding option for candidates in state elections. As elected officials, and equally significantly, as past candidates for public office in New York City, we know firsthand the importance of a strong campaign finance system — and we’ve urged the governor to use New York City’s successful system as a model for the whole state.
While we still don’t know how this year’s redistricting will turn out, one way we can protect our elections from abuse is with comprehensive campaign finance reform.
It’s time to put state elections back in the hands of the voters, and we should not lose focus from this related issue.
Daniel R. Garodnick of Manhattan is a member of the New York City Council.