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How Public Campaign Financing Can Boost Latinos’ Political Power

Latino communities are underrepresented in government. Programs like New York’s that amplify small donors can help change that.

This article first appeared in El Diario NY.

Early May saw a key milestone for democracy in New York as state residents had their modest contributions to candidates of their choice matched by public dollars for the first time under the state’s groundbreaking small donor campaign financing program. By boosting the value of these small donations, the new system starts to shift the balance of power from big money donors to everyday constituents and paves the way for a government that truly represents the people it serves.

For Latino communities, this could be a political game changer in mitigating their underrepresentation in government by spurring more Latino candidates to run for office.

Donating to political campaigns is one of the major ways people can participate in our democracy and make their voices heard. But Latinos are vastly underrepresented among political donors, in New York and nationally.

Instead, New York politics has long been dominated by wealthy donors who don’t represent the diversity or needs of many of the state’s communities. Their checks allow them to influence who wins office and whose priorities get on the political agenda — namely, their own. Meanwhile, the voices of most New Yorkers go largely unheard.

Public financing is an important tool for fixing this imbalance. New York’s small donor program gives constituents who can’t afford to write big checks a bigger say in the political process by amplifying the value of their small donations on contributions between $5 and $250. For legislative candidates, the program includes a progressive, tiered match for contributions from donors within the candidates’ legislative district.

The program provides the highest match to the smallest contributions, on a sliding scale of 12 to 1 for the first $50, a 9-to-1 match on the next $100, and an 8-to-1 match on the last $100. That means a $10 donation to a legislative candidate can be matched with $120 in public funds, making that original $10 worth $130. For statewide candidates, like those running for governor or state attorney general, the match is 6 to 1.

By matching only small contributions, the state’s program promises to significantly increase the importance of everyday New Yorkers to state campaigns. Had the voluntary program been available for the 2022 election, small donors could have been responsible for nearly 70 percent of campaign giving instead of just 11 percent.

Small donor public financing gives candidates a powerful incentive to seek out many supporters, not just a few big donors. They are able to fundraise the same way they campaign: by spending time with the people that they seek to represent and hearing about the issues they care about, such as childcare, housing, education, and jobs.

Public financing could also open the door for more Latinos to run for public office. Political campaigning is expensive, especially for candidates who cannot tap into wealthy networks or their own bank accounts. That’s surely part of why New York’s 3.6 million Latinos are underrepresented in government, making up about 18 percent of the state population but just 11 percent of state legislative officeholders.

With public financing, candidates for state office who previously couldn’t afford to run now have a better shot at funding competitive campaigns.

Experience elsewhere shows that small donor matching systems can help reduce race and gender inequities among candidates. In 2021, public financing helped make New York City’s government more reflective of the people it serves. The city elected the most demographically representative council in history. Women more than doubled their representation to 61 percent, and people of color increased their representation from 51 percent to 67 percent.

Elsewhere, Seattle’s program brought new and more diverse donors into the political process. Public financing programs in Washington, DC, and Montgomery County, Maryland, achieved similar feats in increasing diversity among elected officials.

More than 300 candidates have opted in to New York’s program. They come from across the political spectrum and from upstate and downstate districts, including both incumbents and challengers.