The Journal News
By Sundeep Iyer and Michael Malbin
July 17, 2012
Gov. Andrew Cuomo now plans to spend his summer vacation raising awareness about the need for campaign finance reform in New York’s elections. At a time when heavy spending by wealthy donors has been drowning out the voices of everyday citizens, it should not be difficult for the governor to build public support on the issue.
Many New Yorkers feel they have little influence over what happens in Albany, and the numbers show they have reason for concern: The New York Public Interest Research Group recently found that over one-third of the money that state candidates and political parties raised last year came from a group of just 127 ultra-wealthy donors. These large donations are made possible by the state’s $60,800 individual contribution limit, which is over 10 times greater than limits in most other states.
One proposal for reform could turn the current dynamic on its head, giving much greater power to ordinary citizens.
The proposal would create a voluntary system of small donor public matching funds for candidates in state elections, similar to the one used in New York City for municipal elections. This reform would represent a crucial step toward bringing the voices of ordinary voters back to Albany.
NYC as model
Under New York City’s public matching funds system, participating candidates receive a 6-to-1 match for the first $175 they receive from a city resident. A $100 contribution, for example, turns into $700 for the candidate. This gives candidates an incentive to reach out to their own constituents instead of focusing all their fundraising attention on wealthy out-of-district donors.
A study by the Brennan Center for Justice and the Campaign Finance Institute confirms the success of the city’s program in bringing small donors into the mix.
While just 30 percent of New York City census block groups were home to someone giving $175 or less to state Assembly candidates in 2010, nearly 90 percent were home to small donors who gave to a 2009 City Council candidate.
Almost everyone in the city lived within a city block or so of someone who contributed to a City Council candidate in 2009. This was not even close to being true in the 2010 state elections.
But the city’s public matching funds program doesn’t just bring more donors into the political process; it also makes political participation more diverse. For instance, in the poor and predominantly black Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood and surrounding communities, 24 times more small donors gave money to City Council candidates than to Assembly candidates. For Chinatown, the advantage was 23-to-1. In Upper Manhattan and the Bronx, it was 12-to-1. These neighborhoods were financially very important to City Council candidates, even though they were home to very few ultra-wealthy donors.
The best way to move public opinion is to prove that something can work, and New York City’s public matching funds system is proof. Because of the city’s campaign financing system, City Council candidates are now better connected to the people they represent and less beholden to wealthy donors in other parts of town. This marks nothing less than a fundamental change in the relationship between New York City politicians and their constituents.
Disconnected from political process
That kind of change is badly needed in New York state. Indeed, the disconnect between citizens and the political process may be worse in New York than anywhere else in the country.
The state has the lowest donor participation rate in the country. Many voters aren’t showing up to the polls, either; in the last federal election, only three states had lower voter turnouts than New York. Turnout has been particularly low among people of color; in 2008, an election otherwise notable for high turnout among communities of color, only 55 percent of black and Latino eligible voters — and just one in three eligible Asian voters — went to the polls in New York.
Creating a public matching fund program in New York state won’t solve all of the state’s problems with voter disengagement. But by giving politicians a stronger incentive to reach out to the communities they represent, the program can make the voices of all New Yorkers — including the state’s poorest residents and its communities of color — matter. Enacting this reform in the fall would put political power where it belongs — in the hands of everyday New Yorkers
Sundeep Iyer is the principal quantitative analyst at the Brennan Center for Justice. Michael J. Malbin is executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute and professor of political science at the State University of New York at Albany.