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Analysis

A Big Week for Campaign Finance Reform

New York is on the precipice of revolutionizing campaign finance.

March 29, 2022
Megaphone with money coming out of it
Fotosearch/alexsl/Getty

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U.S. polit­ics are tilted — undeni­ably tilted, disgrace­fully tilted — in favor of wealthy donors. New York State is a case in point. In the 2018 elec­tion cycle, the 100 largest donors to New York candid­ates gave more money than the combined total of all 137,000 small donors (those giving $175 or less). This week, however, the state can take a historic step toward level­ing the polit­ical play­ing field by fully fund­ing its new small donor public finan­cing program.

Here’s how the program will work. State-level candid­ates who opt in will receive match­ing funds for all dona­tions between $5 and $250 that come from within the state or, in the case of legis­lat­ive candid­ates, within the district. The ratio of the match varies between 6-to-1 and 12-to-1, depend­ing on the office being sought and the amount of the dona­tion, and there is a cap on how much public money each candid­ate can receive. The bottom line is that ultra-wealthy patrons will no longer be the sine qua non of elec­ted office in New York. 

Small donor match­ing works. New York City’s program, which has expan­ded in recent years, helped increase female repres­ent­a­tion on city coun­cil to 61 percent after the most recent elec­tion. People of color now consti­tute 67 percent of city coun­cil members, bring­ing them roughly in line with their propor­tion of the general popu­la­tion. Public match­ing wasn’t the only factor in these increases, but it made a big differ­ence. With the help of the program, women and candid­ates of color who were compet­it­ive in the most recent primar­ies raised nearly equal amounts of money, on aver­age, as their white and male coun­ter­parts — a stark contrast to national campaign finance data. 

In addi­tion to its proven effic­acy, one of the great virtues of small donor public match­ing is that it’s inar­gu­ably consti­tu­tional. New York’s match­ing system does not restrict, in any way, the abil­ity of polit­ical bene­fact­ors to speak as loudly as they like through massive cash trans­fers. Instead, it ampli­fies the voices of every­one else.

The New York State Legis­lature approved the small donor public match in 2020, with plans to launch it this year. It is now crit­ical for lead­ers in Albany to provide the fund­ing required to make it work, includ­ing $40 million in match­ing funds that will go to parti­cip­at­ing candid­ates, some­thing the governor and legis­lat­ive lead­ers are currently nego­ti­at­ing. The dead­line for a budget deal and vote is Friday, April 1.

The state’s new public finan­cing system will revo­lu­tion­ize New York polit­ics. If the program had been insti­tuted prior to last year’s state legis­lat­ive elec­tions, dona­tions of less than $250 would have been respons­ible for 61 percent of all funds raised by candid­ates, rather than just 13 percent. After decades of false starts, this week could mark a major step forward in campaign finance reform.