Push to Fix Democracy in New York, Now

We need automatic voter registration, campaign finance reform, early voting, and more

November 16, 2018

Cross-posted from the New York Daily News.

Since last Tuesday, we’ve been inundated with maps and charts showing us how the country is split between red and blue, the fault lines deeper than before. But what’s missing in the wrap-up rhetoric is the clear, resounding, bipartisan message: Voters want bold reforms to restore our democracy.

Across the country and here in New York, voters endorsed proposals that would strengthen our democracy. They approved by wide margins reforms to the way we vote, draw legislative districts, and register in states as diverse as Colorado, Maryland, Michigan, and Missouri.

Voters also spoke out against corruption. In Baltimore and Denver, voters passed bills that would implement public campaign financing — instead of letting private dollars flood elections, these initiatives use public dollars to let candidates be competitive without allowing deep-pocketed donors to control their races. Additional campaign finance reforms won in Missouri and North Dakota.

This desire to shut down corruption through campaign finance reform resonated in New York as well. In New York City, voters passed a ballot initiative that will strengthen the city’s already-successful public financing system, which has served as a model for other jurisdictions across the country for over 30 years. Now, for every dollar in small-money contributions, the city will match it with eight.

With the midterms now over, it’s time to transfer that desire to change our democracy to Albany.

Democrats will control the state Senate for the first time since 2010, and the six newcomers who knocked out obstructionist Independent Democratic Conference members have declared their support for public financing statewide. They’ve also endorsed voter-friendly reforms like early voting and automatic voter registration — where information you provide to the DMV or other government agencies is automatically used to update your registration information.

Such reforms could’ve been an antidote to the shamefully long lines many New Yorkers encountered at the polls on Tuesday. It’s high time New York joins 37 other states and Washington, D.C., and adopts early voting. As it has shown across the country, early voting can serve as a safety valve against Election Day overload.

New York should also follow the lead of 15 states and D.C. and adopt automatic voter registration, which ensures accuracy, saves money, improves security, and eliminates one of the greatest barriers to the voting booth.

Finally, and most dramatically, the state must pass the kind of comprehensive campaign finance reform that new legislators in both chambers and the governor have said they want. To be sure, we have seen major improvements — including measures to increase transparency, require accountability for online ads, and prevent donors from coordinating with candidates. But we need to address the fact that big money overwhelmingly dominates New York State politics, leaving most New Yorkers feeling like they have no voice in the system.

Meaningful campaign finance reform should be centered on enacting small-donor public financing statewide. These systems make everyday people instrumental to funding campaigns and bring us closer to a democracy where everyone participates. Instead of dialing for dollars, publicly financed candidates engage with their communities. Once elected, those candidates are accountable for addressing the issues that matter to their constituents — not big donors.

Skeptics may protest that the deluge of outside spending in politics would undermine this reform. But this election cycle featured many competitive candidates fueled by small contributions from people, not PACs. It’s time for New York to recognize this momentum and leverage the power of everyday donors through a small donor match program.

If New York adopted this kind of comprehensive campaign finance reform package, along with smart-minded voter reforms, it would reestablish its bona fides as a national progressive leader that provides its citizens with a real say in how they are governed. It would be the first state since the Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United decision to curb the power of big money in a meaningful way.

Voters across the country and in New York have made clear that they are looking to take back their democracy. It’s time for New York to lead.

(Image: Michael Reaves/Getty)