Blair Horner: Progressive New York?

Dec 11, 2017

New York considers itself a “progressive” state.  Progressive meaning that New York’s political leaders view the policies of the state as “cutting edge” in its responses to society’s problems.  And in New York State, there is a track record that backs up that view.

New York State granted women the right to vote before the rest of the nation; young adults got the right to vote early too; the state’s constitution includes protections for workers, requirements that the needs of the poor are addressed, that children are guaranteed a sound, basic education; and the state had the foresight to extend constitutional protection to the largest wilderness areas east of the Mississippi.

In recent years, the state was the first to grant marriage rights to gay couples through legislation.

So, there is a lot that New York can point to in terms of being progressive.

But when it comes to its democracy, the state is anything but progressive.

New York State’s system of campaign finance allows enormous campaign contributions.  New York allows the largest campaign contributions of any state that has limits.  Under state law, contributions of $109,000 are completely legal.

New York’s system of establishing political boundaries is hardly a national model:  When it comes to drawing state legislative district lines those with a vested interest in the outcome – lawmakers – draw their own districts.  In effect, state lawmakers choose their voters, not the other way around.

New York’s programs to curb corruption are, to say the least, sadly lacking.

When it comes to the core activity in a democracy—voting—New York has one of the most onerous ballot-casting systems in the nation.

For example, despite the fact that the state constitution makes it clear that no one can register to vote within 10 days of an election, state law goes beyond that and says that no one can register and vote within 25 days of the election – thus a previous governor and state legislature made it harder to vote.  And that 25-day deadline is one of the longest in the nation.

The state even has the longest period of time between when a voter can switch political parties and then vote in a Presidential primary.

The result of the state’s approaches to campaign financing, to redistricting, to ethics, and to voting are not progressive, to say the least.

Instead New Yorkers are increasingly cynical and frustrated by their own government.  And the evidence is clear that the policies and the public’s reactions are damaging: New York consistently has one of the lowest voter participation rates of any state in the nation.

In the 2016 election, for example, New York’s voter turnout rates were worse than states like Alabama and Louisiana.

New Yorkers deserve a better democracy.

The next opportunity to fix things is fast approaching: 2018 will be a reelection year for the Governor, the Attorney General, the state Comptroller and all 213 state legislators.  Next year will also be the year that the nation starts to grapple with the fallout from the policies enacted in Washington – laws which may strip away health insurance for millions and destabilize the budgets of some states, including New York’s.

But voters can’t let candidates for state office off-the-hook for the sad state of democracy in New York.  New Yorkers need to press the governor and legislators for specific responses to the real problems facing the state, such as:

What will they do to end the secrecy that surrounds too much of state decision-making?

What will candidates do to make it easier to vote?

What will they do to end rigged elections?

What will they do to establish independent ethics enforcement?

What will they do to curb the influence of the rich and powerful over the awarding of government contracts and enacting legislation?

The drama playing out in Washington has real-life implications, no doubt.  But it shouldn’t be used as a dodge or a shield from the work that state public officials must do, the work that transforms New York from the nation’s democracy “caboose” to its progressive “engine.”

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

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