March 26, 2013
When I arrived in Congress, members would sometimes joke darkly about $50,000 votes — tough votes against monied interests that would flip donations to their opponent. By the time I left two years later, those were referred to as million-dollar votes. What happened in between was that Citizens United and related court decisions gave funders and corporations the green light to make unlimited and often secret expenditures in elections. As a result, in 2010 and then 2012, we saw every fundraising record shattered.
The greatest threat to the integrity of our democracy is the outsized influence of money. Cynics have begun to treat this dystopic politics as inescapable in the era of Citizens United, and the Supreme Court‘s recent decision to review the constitutionality of contribution limits is unlikely to help matters. But we can still enact crucial campaign finance reforms that make elected officials more responsive to ordinary voters.
While Americans from across the political spectrum support these reforms, Congressional Republicans are dead set against them, which means solutions must come from outside of Washington. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has repeatedly championed campaign finance reform since taking the helm of the Empire State, now has the best opportunity in the country to advance one of the most creative and effective solutions to put the demos back in our democracy.
For years, New Yorkers have been frustrated by the sorry condition of their state’s campaign finance system—its absurdly high contribution limits, its feeble disclosure rules, and the power of wealthy interests in Albany. But Cecilia Tkaczyk‘s recent recount victory has given reformers a rare window of opportunity in the state Senate to enact bold new laws that could not only clean up Albany but also serve as a model for the entire country.
The key actor in this political drama is now Gov. Cuomo. The governor has called for campaign finance reform in all three of his State of the State addresses and has laid out proposals to reduce contributions limits and strengthen disclosure. Now is the chance to translate strong rhetorical leadership into results.
The crown jewel of Cuomo’s plan is a public financing proposal based on New York City’s innovative, successful model that shifts the power center in our democracy back to everyday people. The plan matches each small donation up to $175 with a six to one match. This flips the current, perverse incentive for politicians to spend most of their time fundraising from just a few large donors, instead encouraging them to answer to the population more broadly.
This kind of matching system, what New Yorkers call “citizen funding” of elections, could be a game changer for the state. By empowering small donors, it would give ordinary New Yorkers more control over their representatives and reduce the influence of wealthy contributors. Just look at New York City — rather than asking a few rich donors for big checks, City Council candidates now hustle to gather contributions from scores of small donors. A recent study (which can be read at http://www.cfinst.org) found that this has increased the number and proportional role of small donors in City Council elections and has brought in new donors who are more economically, racially and geographically diverse.
Some opponents claim that public matching funds would waste taxpayer dollars on political campaigns. But ordinary taxpayers would actually be the big winners under this system, because it would drastically diminish government giveaways to wealthy interests. Closing just a few tax loopholes currently protected by the influence of major donors could more than cover the cost of citizen-funded elections. In fact, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the outsized influence of wealthy donors is perhaps the biggest obstacle to achieving meaningful change on a huge range of critical issues, from climate change and taxes, to health care and housing.
The votes for passage in both houses of the legislature are now there. But a truly ground-breaking piece of legislation that includes citizen funded elections won’t get to the Senate floor unless the governor insists on it. This is a fight that the governor can win. Thanks to years of public education and organizing, New Yorkers overwhelmingly support citizen funded elections. A December poll by Lake Research Partners/Public Campaign Action Fund found that voters back the governor’s comprehensive plan by a margin of 79 percent to 8 percent. And this support is bipartisan — 74 percent of Republicans said they favor the measure, along with 79 percent of independents.
Passing a comprehensive campaign finance law would be a remarkable act of political leadership by Governor Cuomo. No state has adopted a small dollar matching system nearly as groundbreaking as what Cuomo has proposed. In addition to transforming New York’s political system, it would generate nationwide attention and could galvanize efforts to replicate the “New York model” across the country and in Washington. This is a fight with big stakes for New Yorkers and for all Americans. It is the kind of fight that can define a leader. Lead on Governor.