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New York’s Wealthiest Played Outsized Role in Funding 2018 Campaigns

A new Brennan Center analysis underlines the need for small-donor public financing, which would give ordinary New Yorkers a much louder voice in elections.

December 20, 2018

Update 2/26/19: The Brennan Center has released a new report, The Case for Small Donor Public Financing in New York, which provides more in-depth research and analysis on how to reform New York State’s campaign finance system by enacting a small donor public financing program. 

New Brennan Center numbers underscore the outsized role that New York’s wealthiest donors play in funding campaigns. They highlight the urgent need for a small-donor public financing system to amplify the voices of ordinary New Yorkers — a solution Gov. Cuomo announced his support for Wednesday. 

In the 2018 election, just 100 people in the state donated more to state candidates than all 137,000 small donors combined, according to a Brennan Center analysis of 2018 campaign contributions. Small donors are those who gave $175 or less.

The top 100 individual donors in 2018 contributed an astronomical $7,525,311.14, the analysis found. That far surpasses the small-donor total of $5,807,914.

This disparity between mega donors and everyone else in New York probably understates the gap between big donors and everyone else because, as the analysis notes, these numbers do not include the tens of millions of dollars in contributions to candidates from LLCs, PACs, corporations and other non-party groups, much of which also came from the state’s biggest donors and special interests.

The Brennan Center analysis also shows:

• More than half of all contributions came from individuals or entities who gave $10,000 or more. Three quarters came from individuals and entities who gave $1,000 or more. 

• Small donors made up only 5 percent of all donors to statewide and legislative races. That likely puts New York among the very worst states in terms of share of donations that came from small donors. 

These data are consistent with other ongoing research showing that small donors are vastly underrepresented in New York elections. They highlight how under the state’s current campaign finance system, a small group of wealthy donors enjoys far more influence than average citizens. 

“These staggering figures show the urgency of boosting the power of small donors through a public financing program,” said Nirali Vyas, a researcher for the Brennan Center’s Democracy program, who conducted the analysis.

A separate analysis released Thursday by the Campaign Finance Institute (CFI) makes clear how a small-donor public financing system could fix the problem. It finds that such a system, with contribution limits as proposed by Cuomo, could have more than tripled the share of 2018 donations to Assembly candidates that came from small donors, making small donors the single biggest source of money for these candidates. For Senate candidates, it could have quintupled it. And the proportion of donations from LLCs, non-party organizations, and large money individual contributors would decrease substantially in the state’s Assembly, Senate, and gubernatorial races, according to the CFI analysis.

On Wednesday, Cuomo announced his support for an overhaul of the state’s campaign finance system, the centerpiece of which would be a public financing program. 

Small-donor public financing would help tackle the influence of wealthy donors

Small-donor public financing is by far the boldest solution currently possible for giving ordinary voters a much louder voice in the political process. Numerous cities and counties have recently adopted or expanded small-donor match programs, including New York City and Suffolk County. 

New York City has had a largely successful public financing program for nearly 30 years, which matches small-donor contributions collected by candidates. In its most recent form, the program provides public matching funds at a $6-to-$1 rate for contributions up to $175 from city residents. Voters opted to expand the program in November’s midterm elections.

Cuomo has consistently supported bringing a similar small-donor match system to all of New York State. “Every day, ordinary New Yorkers struggle to make their voices heard in our political system,” he said in his January 2017 State of the State speech. “The only way to truly fix this problem is to institute a public financing system for political campaigns that matches funds from small donations.” 

After the elections last month, Fair Elections for New York — a coalition of more than 150 organizations that includes community, labor, environmental, faith, and tenant groups — sent a letter calling for Cuomo and the New York Legislature to prioritize small-donor public financing.  The letter criticizes New York’s existing campaign finance system for allowing “an exorbitant amount of power to be concentrated in the hands of the very wealthy and well-connected.” 

If New York enacted statewide small-donor public financing, it would become the first state to do so, making it a national leader in comprehensive campaign finance reform. That would be a major turnaround from its current status: A 2016 Politifact analysis found that the state has more office-holders who have been convicted, sanctioned, or accused of wrong-doing than any other in the nation. 

A public financing system would bring other benefits, too 

The CFI analysis found that enacting a statewide public financing program would cost just over $58 million, including administration costs, which translates to less than one penny a day per New Yorker.

Small-donor public financing would also help increase the diversity of donors in New York. New York City’s multiple match system. A 2012 Brennan Center study, coauthored with CFI’s Michael Malbin, compared small donor activity in City Council campaigns under multiple match to Assembly campaigns, which received no matching funds. It found that City Council races generated a far more geographically and demographically diverse set of donors. This was true in neighborhoods with lower incomes, greater poverty, and more people of color.

Now’s the time for New York to enact small-donor public financing

In November’s midterm elections, voters across the country championed democracy reforms and signaled their dissatisfaction with campaign finance systems that favor the wealthy. New York lawmakers have the opportunity to heed that signal by enacting small-donor public financing, which will help redirect the attention of candidates to ordinary citizens. It would strengthen the state of democracy in New York — and lead the way for other states to do the same.

Learn more in the Brennan Center report The Case for Small Donor Public Financing in New York.

(Image: Getty)