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New York kicks off its new voluntary system of public financing of elections

This past election New Yorkers were inundated by political ads paid for by Big Money. Huge campaign contributions from lobbyists and those who have contracts – or are seeking them –with the government, as well as unlimited spending by wealthy special interest patrons, dominated the political landscape. Those groups spoke with the equivalent of a megaphone amplified through rock-arena speakers. In contrast the voices of average New Yorkers were barely a whisper.

What happened is not unique to New York.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution has made it impossible to impose a limit on campaign spending. The first Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Using its interpretation of the phrase “freedom of speech” in the mid-1970s the Court ruled, in the landmark case Buckley v. Valeo, that statutory limits on campaign contributions were not violations of the First Amendment freedom of expression, but that statutory limits on campaign spending were unconstitutional.

The Court interpreted the First Amendment by deciding that restricting spending money to facilitate campaign messaging "reduces the quantity of expression by restricting the number of issues discussed, the depth of their exploration, and the size of the audience reached."

Of course, there is nothing in the Constitution that equates the two. And it was that decision that laid the groundwork decades later for the now-infamous Citizens United decision, which said that political spending independent of candidate control could not be restricted. As a result, in America it is essentially unconstitutional to restrict the wealthy and powerful from spending as much as they want to influence elections.

New Yorkers saw the impact in the elections earlier this month. Campaign donors drive elections and only those who curry Big Money’s favor can mount serious candidacies.

Against that depressing backdrop, New York has taken a step toward making it easier for grassroots candidates to run for office without having to be beholden to the wealthy and powerful.

In 2020, as a result of a big push from former Governor Cuomo, New York established a voluntary system of public financing of elections. That program started up the day after Election Day of this year. All statewide candidates, including those running for governor, comptroller and attorney general, as well as the 213 legislative seats in Albany, are eligible to participate.

New York’s program allows private direct contributions of between $5 and $250 to be matched with public funds, depending on the size. The smaller the contribution, the bigger the public match; up to $12 for every contribution of no more than $50 for example. Thus, candidates would be able to run for office by raising small contributions through a system of clean public resources that amplified small donations, instead of depending on big checks from special interest groups, wealthy individuals, and lobbyists.

New York has experience with a voluntary public financing system. For over 30 years, New York City has had a similar program – considered a model for the nation.

And now that type of system is moving to a statewide scale in the new election cycle. The hope is that smaller donations will reduce the influence of big money in politics and enhance electoral challenges.

The 2020 legislation also significantly reduced the allowable campaign contribution amounts. For example, Governor Hochul was able to receive contributions up to $69,700 this year. Starting now, she can “only” receive $18,000. While a big drop, it is still much higher than New York’s U.S. Senator Schumer can receive; which is no more than $5,800 from an individual, and far more than the national average contribution to a state’s candidates for governor, which is $6,126. The 2020 reform did nothing to limit donations from lobbyists or those who are seeking government contracts.

In addition, the new law could not do anything about the flood of so-called “independent” spending by corporations or wealthy individuals. And public financing is a voluntary system, with participation a choice to be made by the candidate.

But it does offer those New Yorkers of average means, who are not part of a network that includes the wealthy, to make a serious run for state office. And given the tight grip the well-connected have over our government, electoral competition may be the only way to offset that enormous influence.

More can be done – including the creation of an independent enforcement agency, limits on those seeking government contracts, and lobbyist donations – but New York’s public financing system brings some good news. News that holds the promise that the voices of rank and file New Yorkers can rise above a whisper.

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

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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