By Fahad Naheem
New York stands on the frontlines of one of the most contested election law issues that faces our country today. In his State of the State Address, Governor Andrew Cuomo said that New York must take affirmative steps to fix campaign finance rules to address the “epidemic of corruption in the legislature.” Governor Cuomo worries that the public is rapidly losing trust in the political system because election laws are slanted in favor of the rich and the wealthy. The New York Legislature is viewed as one of the most corrupt, dysfunctional, and broken legislative bodies in the country as detailed in a report by the Brennan Center for Justice. According to the report, New York has tried several initiatives to fix the structure and functioning of the legislature but to no avail. That is why Governor Cuomo’s call for campaign finance reform is both crucial and necessary to ameliorate the current the negative public perception. Governor Cuomo firmly states that without any trust in the political process, the public will not work with the government and vote for tax reform, public school renovations, and other important matters.
The NYC Bar Association has similarly expressed its belief in fighting for campaign finance form, especially advocating for a more robust public campaign finance fund. The NYC Bar wants to hold candidates more accountable as well as create a more level playing field between incumbents and challengers. The NYC Bar also advocates for stricter limits on political contributions, enhanced regulations for contributions and expenditures, and better enforcement of campaign finance laws. A grass roots movement named Fair Elections for New York surfaced to give a voice to people who seek campaign finance form. The group disapproves of the huge political contributions that they believe affect the outcomes of elections and result in corrupt legislators taking offices and using the current campaign finance schemes to entrench themselves against challengers.
In response to the growing public disapproval of the current campaign finance laws and Governor Cuomo’s speech, the New York City Legislature and the Board of Elections for New York State has begun to implement several changes to campaign finance laws. The New York City Campaign Finance Act, which was passed in 1988, has had few amendments since its passage. The last amendment occurred in 2007, and the statute has only been updated to reflect the expenditure limit adjustments detailed in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. To address the campaign finance issues stated above, the Board of Elections passed a resolution on July 9, 2014 to make several amendments and emergency regulations addressing campaign finance rules before the midterm elections. These regulations modify Chapter 55 Subpart C of the New York State Election Law, which governs independent expenditure reporting and the receipt of political contributions from individuals and political action committees. The new regulations require that candidates who have been qualified to run and have registered with the Board of Elections to report any contribution in excess of $1000 to the board within one week of receiving that contribution. In addition, the emergency regulations require that candidates report any expenditure made in excess of $5000 to be reported within one week of the expenditure.
The regulations amplify further once election season starts. When it is within 30 days of any primary, general, or special election, candidates are required to report both expenditures and contributions (that are above the thresholds described above) within twenty-four hours of the receipt of the contribution or the making of an expenditure. Candidates and political committees that meet the requirements for financial disclosures must also disclose all political communications and campaign materials used to reach voters. These regulations create a stringent scheme of accountability and honesty. The candidates have to be transparent about how much they are spending and receiving. The regulations make the candidates beholden to the Board of Elections, which assigns a treasurer to maintain accurate records of such transactions. The failure to report accurately and on time results in stiff penalties for the candidate. The penalties are $1000 or up to the cost of the communication, whichever is higher.
The emergency regulations described above are further bolstered by New York’s robust database that contains all the information for independent expenditures and political contributions. This database contains all the disclosure reports that have been received by the New York State Board of Elections. The database contains a large amount of information for the public including the twenty-four hour notices for contributions and expenditures, all the campaign materials used in the election, political committees and candidates who have registered, and the total amount of contributions and expenditures made. This tool empowers the public, who can check the facts and see what candidates are supported by what interests. The database is an excellent tool for holding candidates accountable and helps the public identify those candidates that they feel are more trustworthy and are worth supporting as well as rooting out candidates that they feel should be ousted.
The final piece of legislation that will be interesting to watch in the future is New York’s public finance pilot program. This program, enacted in March of this year, allows candidates the option to register for public funds in their political campaigns. The Board of Elections has a set of qualifications that must be met by those who participate in this program. The program requires that candidates make a list of all contributions received in a highly detailed report in order to receive matching public financing. The candidates cannot make independent expenditures with their own assets or assets held jointly with a spouse or partner. Candidates must meet the contribution limits detailed in Chapter 55 Subpart D of the code. The Board of Elections bolstered this program by adopting emergency regulations to further define eligibility requirements and reporting procedures. The program is quite ambitious and is a huge step into unprecedented territory. The public at large can view the disclosure reports through database described above. The receipt of funds requires strict accountability of the candidates who are subject to strong penalties for abusing the funds and not reporting accurately. The public fund has the potential to greatly reform campaign finance laws and fix many of the issues that Governor Cuomo and the NYC Bar highlighted above. This program will require lots of support and funding to make a success, but it has great potential to reform campaign finance in New York and serve as a model for other states.
The actions taken by the New York State Board of Elections are very commendable. The new regulations, the database, and the public finance program will help the board tremendously to reform the campaign finance laws. New York has a long road ahead to rid itself of political corruption and to earn public trust. The laws will have to be further revised, expanded, and fine-tuned to stop these issues. However, these new election laws are an excellent move to foster necessary changes. Hopefully, Governor Cuomo’s vision for campaign finance reform will become a reality through these new provisions.