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The Answer to Citizens United Is Becoming Reality

New York’s small donor public match will shift power away from megadonors.

January 24, 2024

Fourteen years ago this week, a 5–4 majority of the Supreme Court unleashed a tidal wave of money into our elections. By forbidding limits on “independent” political spending — that is, spending that isn’t clearly coordinated with a candidate — the justices in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission handed the ultrawealthy a blank check to influence American politics.

Since then, megadonors have spent heavily to dominate our democracy. In the 2022 midterms, just 21 families gave more than 3.7 million small donors combined. It’s a stunning imbalance that dictates who runs for office, who wins, and whose interests elected officials heed and serve.

But change is finally here: New York State’s pathbreaking new Public Campaign Finance Program is now in effect for the 2024 election cycle. It’s the strongest response enacted anywhere in the country to counter the damage Citizens United has caused to our democracy, and it’s a robust model for other states and the federal government to follow. And just last week, after vetoing potentially destructive changes to the program, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul committed to fully funding it in her FY 2025 executive budget.

Hochul’s support for the program is a big step forward for New York’s democracy. Her bold leadership in safeguarding and bolstering the program in this critical year deserves praise. Her executive budget not only promises to provide this vital program the money it needs, but also is a powerful act of support for voters. When enacting the program, lawmakers promised New Yorkers “to ensure a government that is accountable to all of the voters of the state regardless of wealth or position.” The responsibility now lies with the state legislature to cement this commitment when it votes to approve the budget, due April 1.

The Public Campaign Finance Program is based on a simple but powerful concept: it matches constituents’ small donations with public funds. Candidates who opt in to and qualify for the program can receive up to $12 for every $1 received in eligible small donations of $250 or less. These contributions must come from within the candidate’s district, strengthening ties between candidates and constituents. To date, nearly 190 candidates across the state and political spectrum have signed up, with a month to go before the deadline to enroll.

The program stands to improve New York’s democracy in significant ways. In 2022, just 200 wealthy donors gave more to state candidates than all 206,000 small donors combined. That year, small donors accounted for only 11 percent of donations. If the program had been in place, their share could have been as high as 67 percent — an increase that would be attributable entirely to donations from within the candidates’ districts.

Experience elsewhere underscores a range of civic benefits we can expect to see. In 2021, New York City’s small donor match program helped elect the most diverse and representative city council in history. Research shows that publicly financed candidates in New York City raised more of their funds from inside their districts and from small donors than candidates who did not choose public financing. New York State’s program similarly promises to make everyday New Yorkers a more important source of support for state candidates.

Like any major reform, the road to securing this program was long and challenging at times. The Brennan Center is grateful to have played a major role, alongside partners across the state, in its enactment and implementation. New York’s elected leaders should be commended for delivering this crucial reform to New York’s voters. They must back up their promises by ensuring the program is fully funded in the final state budget.

Money is not speech. It never has been, and there’s nothing in the Constitution to suggest we have to treat it that way. Now, we have a tool to address the harms of Citizens United head-on. Fully funded, New York’s Public Campaign Finance Program will give the rest of the country a roadmap for counteracting the outsize role of wealthy donors in politics. In this pivotal year for American democracy, it’s a vital part of the fight.