By: David Lim
Last year, Democrats took the New York legislature for the first time in a decade. This is important given the state’s notorious reputation of having highly restrictive voting laws and corruption in public office. By flipping the state Senate, New York has a unique opportunity to implement meaningful election and campaign finance reform. Indeed, state Democrats have been taking advantage of the opportunity. In the past year, Albany has enacted several reforms, including, but not limited to, early voting, more paid time off to vote, and holding both state and federal primary elections on the same day. Most notably, these reforms did not touch on campaign finance reform. However, this is not to say that New York is not doing anything about it.
In lieu of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United¸ which held that the Federal Election Commission cannot limit independent political spending by corporations, Americans are worried about the extent to which our government is beholden to special interests. Data from 2018 shows that elections in New York are practically dominated by large donors. To put this into perspective, consider the following statistic: “100 individuals donated more to candidates than all 137,000 small donors combined.” This should come as no surprise given that New York has among the highest campaign contribution limits. Individuals can contribute up to $69,700 to a candidate for a statewide office, $19,300 to a state Senate candidate, and $9,400 to a state Assembly candidate. The Brennan Center for Justice found that these figures far exceed the limits imposed in federal elections and other state elections.
A potential solution to this issue is to implement a small donor public finance system, and that is exactly what Albany is pursuing. Both the state legislature and Governor Cuomo agree that a small donor program is a budget priority, and support for the program extends beyond Albany. A recent poll found that most New Yorkers are in favor of a small donor program. By enacting a program like the one implemented in New York City, candidates would be encouraged to seek donations from ordinary citizens, rather than from large donors. Proponents believe that candidates will be more responsive to the electorate and to the needs of more ordinary Americans.
Under the proposed program, candidates would agree to lower campaign contribution limits, but at the same time, small donations would be matched by public dollars. Put simply, this program aims to boost the impact and influence of small donors by allocating public funds for every donation made. As an example, New York City adopted a six-to-one ratio, up to $175. Suppose someone donates $20 to candidate X. This means candidate X would receive $20, plus $120 from public funds, for a total of $140. Currently, Albany is pledging up to $100 million for candidates who opt into the program. Of course, there are safeguards against misuse of these funds (i.e., we want to make sure the money is not given to noncompetitive candidates). For instance, the proposed program requires that candidates who opt in must receive a certain number of small donations to be eligible for public donation matching. The Public Campaign Financing Commission, a body tasked with determining the specifics of New York’s small donor program, are currently working on the specifics of the program and have a deadline of December 1, 2019. Until then, we have no idea when and how this system will be implemented.