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Small Donor Public Financing Plays Role in Electing Most Diverse New York City Council

The city council primaries saw remarkable race and gender equity in fundraising, challenging typical trends in campaign finance.

On Tues­day, New York City voters elec­ted the most diverse and repres­ent­at­ive legis­lature in the city’s history. The numbers of women and people of color elec­ted increased signi­fic­antly, better reflect­ing their numbers in the city’s general popu­la­tion, our analysis of candid­ate demo­graph­ics found. A robust small donor public finan­cing option for campaign fundrais­ing, where candid­ates can join a city program that matches modest dona­tions they earn from resid­ents by $8-to-$1, played an import­ant role in these trends.

Women, who are 52 percent of resid­ents, will increase their repres­ent­a­tion on the city coun­cil from 27 percent now to 61 percent come Janu­ary. foot­note1_3yqx­ti2 1 Under­ly­ing data on file with the Bren­nan Center. People of color, who are 68 percent of resid­ents, will increase their repres­ent­a­tion on the coun­cil from 51 percent now to 67 percent. foot­note2_q80kywt 2 Under­ly­ing data on file with the Bren­nan Center. Women of color in partic­u­lar drove these racial and gender diversity gains, running and winning in suffi­cient numbers to more than double their seats in the 51-member body. foot­note3_wtyh6mn 3 Under­ly­ing data on file with the Bren­nan Center.

New York City’s small donor public finan­cing program “was one of the factors that opened the oppor­tun­ity for more women from diverse back­grounds to run for office,” Jessica Haller, exec­ut­ive director of 21 in ’21, an organ­iz­a­tion devoted to gender equal­ity on the coun­cil, told us. Her colleague and vice-chair, Yvette Buck­ner, explained that public match­ing dollars enabled women to invest in campaign tools such as digital outreach to broaden and diver­sify their levels of engage­ment, which was crit­ical in a pandemic elec­tion.

Our analysis of city campaign finance records and the demo­graph­ics of candid­ates bears out the strategists’ obser­va­tions. foot­note4_fi60dru 4 We compiled and analyzed certain data about the 309 city coun­cil candid­ates who appeared on the primary ballot in June. We logged gender and race self-iden­ti­fic­a­tion for each candid­ate, as shared in campaign liter­at­ure or public state­ments, follow­ing meth­od­o­logy used in previ­ous stud­ies on federal candid­ates. See Bern­ard L. Fraga, “Separ­at­ing Race and Party in Congres­sional Elec­tions,” (Work­ing Paper, Emory Univer­sity, June 9, 2020), https://stat­­f250d3d34c52/1609273635650/race­partycan­did­ates_060920.pdf%22%20/t%20%22_blank; and Bern­ard L. Fraga and Hans J. G. Hassell, “Are Minor­ity and Women Candid­ates Penal­ized by Party Polit­ics? Race, Gender, and Access to Party Support,” Polit­ical Research Quarterly 74 (2020): 540–555,­sell4/Frag­a­Has­sell­Party.pdf. We used primary cycle data from the New York City Campaign Finance Board to determ­ine each candid­ate’s total fundrais­ing and reli­ance on contri­bu­tions from small donors (indi­vidual donors of $175 and less) and on match­ing funds. We meas­ured reli­ance on small dona­tions by calcu­lat­ing the propor­tion of a candid­ate’s total fundrais­ing they raised from donors giving $175 (the maximum eligible for match­ing with public dollars). We meas­ured reli­ance on match­ing funds by calcu­lat­ing the propor­tion of a candid­ate’s total fundrais­ing they received in public funds. For the full fundrais­ing data­set, see New York City Campaign Finance Board, “Campaign Finance Summary – 2021 City­wide Elec­tions,” July 15, 2021,­tion_cycle=2021. Among the women and people of color who won city coun­cil seats this week, 97 percent raised money through the volun­tary small donor public finan­cing program. Remark­ably, they and other candid­ates of color and female candid­ates who were compet­it­ive in the primar­ies raised as much, on aver­age, as their white and male coun­ter­parts. foot­note5_gblrr85 5 ‘Com­pet­it­ive candid­ates’ in this analysis refers to the two top vote recip­i­ents in the first round of the ranked-choice voting process of the primary elec­tion. All of the general elec­tion victors who ran in a contested primary placed in the top two during the first round of ranked-choice voting. (In New York City, the primary elec­tion of the incum­bent party, more than the general, tends to be the contest that matters most. Indeed, as of this writ­ing, only one coun­cil district will defin­itely flip parties in 2022, even in a cycle that saw unusu­ally high major-party compet­i­tion. foot­note6_a5qr­c7k 6 At the time of public­a­tion, three races remain unde­cided, two of which involved contested primary elec­tion victors. There­fore, this figure could increase based on the pending results. ).

These find­ings stand in stark contrast to typical trends in U.S. campaign finance, where histor­ical disad­vant­ages hinder candid­ates of color and female candid­ates in the race to raise big money from wealthy donors. foot­note7_0sibuuj 7 Tom Shapiro, Jessica Santos, and Sylvia Stew­art, The Black-White Racial Wealth Gap, Insti­tute on Assets and Social Policy and LDF Thur­good Marshall Insti­tute, 2019, 2, https://tmin­sti­; Judith Warner, Open­ing the Gates: Clear­ing the Way for More Women to Hold Polit­ical Office, Center for Amer­ican Progress, 2017, 10, https://cdn.amer­ic­an­pro­­keep­ers-report­May.pdf; Kira Sanbon­matsu, Research Invent­ory: Amer­ican Women and Polit­ics, Center for Amer­ican Women and Polit­ics, 2015, 42, https://www.polit­ic­al­par­; Denise Baer and Heidi Hart­mann, Build­ing Women’s Polit­ical Careers: Strength­en­ing the Pipeline to Higher Office, Insti­tute for Women’s Policy Research, 2014,­ing-womens-polit­ical-careers-strength­en­ing-the-pipeline-to-higher-office/; and Center for Respons­ive Polit­ics, Common Cause, and Repres­ent­a­tion 2020, Indi­vidual and PAC Giving to Women Candid­ates, 2016, 1, https://d3n8a8­­­vote/pages/4944/attach­ments/original/1480999514/Giving_to_Female_Candid­ates_2016.pdf. Research shows women and people of color running for office tend to rely more on small donors than their male or white coun­ter­parts and, thus, espe­cially bene­fit from public match­ing models.

To use New York City’s small donor public finan­cing program, a candid­ate first must show a suffi­cient level of public support by rais­ing a threshold sum in small dona­tions from a minimum number of resid­ents. The candid­ate must also follow strict disclos­ure rules and contri­bu­tion limits and earn every dollar they receive in public funds by rais­ing match­able contri­bu­tions from city resid­ents. Parti­cip­a­tion is volun­tary: candid­ates can, instead, raise money strictly through private dona­tions.

The program has seen a number of improve­ments over its three decades, includ­ing increases in the size of the match. This year’s was the first city­wide elec­tion to happen after 80 percent of voters decided in a refer­en­dum to increase the public finan­cing match from $6-to-$1 to $8-to-$1 and to slash contri­bu­tion limits in city coun­cil races from $2,850 to $1,000. Many of this cycle’s history-making candid­ates credit this increase for encour­aging them to run and empower­ing their grass­roots campaigns.

Our analysis found race and gender equity in fundrais­ing across all compet­it­ive coun­cil candid­ates in the primary. foot­note8_cafokuj 8 Our analysis focuses on the top two vote recip­i­ents in the first-round tally of ranked-choice ballots in each city coun­cil primary contest. Though subsequent rounds of tally­ing changed the posi­tions of these top two in four primary contests, in only one primary contest did a candid­ate origin­ally in the top two not remain in the top two by the final round. Among these candid­ates, men and women raised, on aver­age, nearly the same amounts, with women rais­ing 4 percent more than men. White candid­ates and candid­ates of color also raised, on aver­age, nearly the same amounts, with candid­ates of color rais­ing 2 percent more than white candid­ates. These candid­ates also relied to similar degrees on small dona­tions and public match­ing funds in their fundrais­ing, regard­less of their race or gender iden­tity. foot­note9_yjfba9h 9 Source: New York City Campaign Finance Board. Under­ly­ing data on file with the Bren­nan Center. This remark­able parity in fundrais­ing trends held true not just for coun­cil candid­ates over­all, but also in one-to-one contests when the top two candid­ates in a given district were of differ­ent races or genders. foot­note10_htjhar0 10 In order to control for district-level dynam­ics in contests, we also completed one-to-one compar­is­ons where a male candid­ate and female candid­ate were the top two vote recip­i­ents in the first-round tally of ranked-choice ballots in a given district, and like­wise where a nonwhite and white candid­ate were the top two vote recip­i­ents in a given district. Source: New York City Campaign Finance Board. Under­ly­ing data on file with the Bren­nan Center.

To be sure, the city’s small donor public finan­cing program was not the only elec­tion reform in play this year. Term limits, in place since 1993, opened more than half the coun­cil seats to newcomers, a window of oppor­tun­ity not seen in two decades. foot­note11_ug6n­lqd 11 Accord­ing to second­ary source liter­at­ure about federal elec­tions, women have the best chance of being elec­ted to office when a seat is open. Eric R.A.N Smith and Richard L. Fox, “The Elect­oral Fortunes of Women Candid­ates for Congress,” Polit­ical Research Quarterly 54, no. 1 (2001): 217, https://journ­als.sage­­al­Code=prqb&. The Center for Amer­ican Women and Polit­ics explains that when large numbers of incum­bents choose not to seek reelec­tion, this can create “nearly unpre­ced­en­ted struc­tural oppor­tun­it­ies” for women to win seats in Congress. Kelly Ditmar, Unfin­ished Busi­ness: Women Running in 2018 and Beyond, Center for Amer­ican Women and Polit­ics, 2019, 20, https://women­ Ranked-choice voting, adop­ted by ballot refer­en­dum in 2019, conver­ted the primary from a winner-take-all contest to one that cycled through voters’ rank­ings of up to five candid­ates until one candid­ate received more than 50 percent of the vote. Research on term limits and ranked-choice voting, however, shows the policies do not always have the effect some proponents seek of increas­ing diversity and repres­ent­a­tion, some­times result­ing in the oppos­ite. foot­note12_p2nwlq1 12 Research on the effects of both ranked-choice voting and term limits on candid­ate and elec­ted offi­cial diversity offers mixed conclu­sions. For ranked-choice voting, some stud­ies have shown that candid­ates of color and women candid­ates bene­fit since the reform allows for more afford­able campaign­ing, elim­in­ates vote split­ting, rewards issue-based campaigns, expands voter parti­cip­a­tion, and ensures more repres­ent­at­ive outcomes. Deb Otis and Nora Dell, Ranked Choice Voting Elec­tions Bene­fit Candid­ates and Voters of Color, Fair­Vote, 2021, https://d3n8a8­­­vote/pages/20267/attach­ments/original/1620768112/RCV_Bene­fits_Communit­ies_of_Color_Report.pdf?1620768112; and Repres­ent­Wo­men, In Ranked Choice Elec­tions, Women WIN, 2020, https://www.repres­ent­wo­ Other stud­ies show that ranked-choice voting may have unin­ten­ded consequences that negat­ively impact diversity among candid­ates and elec­ted offi­cials. For example, the policy may increase inform­a­tion costs for voters, result­ing in low-inform­a­tion elec­tions in which candid­ates of color are signi­fic­antly penal­ized. Melody Crowder-Meyer, Shana K. Gadarian, and Jessica Troun­stine, “Rank­ing Candid­ates in Local Elec­tions: Neither Panacea nor Cata­strophe,” Janu­ary 21, 2021, 2001 study examin­ing several state legis­latures with term limits found a slight decrease in the number of women in office because of term limits during the 1998 and 2000 elec­tions. Conversely, the authors found a slight increase in the number of people of color in office due to term limits in those same elec­tion cycles. Increas­ing Diversity or More of the Same? Term Limits and the Repres­ent­a­tion of Women, Minor­it­ies, and Minor­ity Women in State Legis­latures, Rutgers Univer­sity, August 2001,­lim­its­di­versity_0.pdf. In 2006, a study on the impact of term limits on repres­ent­a­tional diversity in the Flor­ida state legis­lature found no stat­ist­ic­ally signi­fic­ant change in the diversity of legis­lat­ors after the impos­i­tion of term limits. Scot Schraufn­a­gel and Karen Halperin, “Term Limits, Elect­oral Compet­i­tion, and Repres­ent­a­tional Diversity: The Case of Flor­ida,” State Polit­ics & Policy Quarterly 6, no. 4 (2006): 448–62, Indeed, the histor­ical barri­ers that women, people of color, and partic­u­larly women of color face in tradi­tional fundrais­ing have impeded their abil­ity to compete even for open seats.

New York City’s public finan­cing program contin­ues to be a model for juris­dic­tions look­ing to address histor­ical inequit­ies in fundrais­ing. In 2020, New York became the first state to enact a match­ing program since Citizens United. Last year, several cities held their first elec­tions with either new public finan­cing programs or recently increased matches. After enact­ing its program, Port­land, OR, saw contri­bu­tion sizes shrink but more small donors parti­cip­ate even in non-wealthy zip codes. In Wash­ing­ton, DC, the new Fair Elec­tions Program diver­si­fied the donor pool, increas­ing parti­cip­a­tion most dramat­ic­ally in areas where more people of color and lower-income resid­ents live. Ahead of the 2020 elec­tions, San Fran­cisco increased its match from $2-to-$1 to $6-to-$1 and saw private funds become less import­ant to candid­ate spend­ing than in previ­ous elec­tions. These trends line up with research show­ing the policy increases diversity and parti­cip­a­tion among small donors and incentiv­izes candid­ates to seek more support from the constitu­ents they seek to repres­ent.

Candid­ates across the coun­try attest to the demo­cracy-enhan­cing bene­fits of small donor public finan­cing. The policy enables them to spend more time with their constitu­ents, improv­ing the respons­ive­ness of govern­ment, offi­cials elec­ted with public finan­cing told us earlier this year. And it helps break down barri­ers to entry that histor­ic­ally have disad­vant­aged women and people of color. New York Attor­ney General Leti­tia James, who previ­ously became the first Black woman to win city­wide office using New York City’s small donor public finan­cing program, told us that “public finan­cing is a crit­ical tool to ensure that more people from more diverse back­grounds have the oppor­tun­ity to hold elec­ted office and serve our communit­ies.” She stressed, “It’s imper­at­ive that our govern­ment be reflect­ive of the people it repres­ents.”

Congress could be next. A small donor public finan­cing program for U.S. House races currently awaits passage as part of the Free­dom to Vote Act. The legis­la­tion would provide congres­sional candid­ates the oppor­tun­ity to opt into a match similar to New York’s. Congres­sional public finan­cing would help close the fundrais­ing gap that persists for women, candid­ates of color, and espe­cially women of color, and increase diversity on Capitol Hill as it has in City Hall.

End Notes