Brennan Center Report Shows Why New York State’s Democracy Needs Small Donor Public Financing

February 25, 2019

Reform would amplify the voices of regular New Yorkers and break big money’s grip on policy and law

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In a new report, the Brennan Center provides research and analysis demonstrating New York State’s urgent need to reform its campaign finance system, as well as the most effective solution: small donor public financing. The policy outlined in the Brennan Center report, The Case for Small Donor Public Financing in New York, would use public funds to match donations of $175 or less to state candidates 6 to 1.

This proposal is part of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s budget legislation, and it has strong champions in both legislative chambers. Negotiations over the budget’s contents are underway with a final deadline of April 1. 

“Small donor public financing tilts the balance of power in politics back towards the people,” said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “If New York State adopts this program, it would be the nation’s most far-reaching campaign finance reform in the era post-Citizens United.”

Among the report’s findings:

  • In 2018 the top 100 individual donors to New York State candidates gave more than all of the roughly 137,000 small donors combined. 
  • Small donations of $175 and below made up less than 5% of the total donations to state candidates in 2018. If the governor’s proposed small donor public financing program had been adopted and used by all candidates in 2018, the small donations’ share of the total would have been six times larger, at 30%. That share would increase to 45% if those candidates were able to raise small donations at the same levels as candidates in the New York City small donor finance system, in place since 1988.
  • The total cost of small donor public financing — including the matching funds and administering the program — would be less than a penny per day per New York State resident. 

“Small donor public financing is the reform that makes other reforms possible — reforms that for decades have been thwarted by a wealthy few,” said Norden. “New Yorkers have sought much-needed changes in housing, education, the environment, criminal justice, health care — you name it — only to see their efforts squashed by big donors. Small donor public financing would make this a fairer fight by giving regular New Yorkers more clout in Albany.”

In addition to the 6-to-1 match, the small donor public financing proposal in Governor Cuomo’s budget would require participating candidates to collect a minimum number of small donations to qualify for the matching funds. Candidates would also need to agree to reductions in the limits on the amount individuals can donate. While the program would put a cap on the matching funds per candidate, it would not limit candidates’ total campaign spending. These requirements and other aspects of the policy are detailed in the report.

The public financing plan under consideration in Albany mirrors a proposal on Capitol Hill, part of the democracy reforms in the For the People Act (H.R. 1) introduced earlier this year.

The report is available here: