The New York State Legislature, Governor Cuomo, reformers, advocates, and plenty of ordinary citizens are justly celebrating the passage and signing into law of major improvements to democracy in New York. I am too.
New York State will now permit early voting beginning with the General Election in 2019, allowing voting up to nine days and at least two full weekends prior to Election Day. Other major reforms consolidate Federal and state legislative primaries in June, permit pre-registration of 16 and 17-year olds, mandate transfers of voter registration throughout the State, and close the LLC loophole, by which the real estate industry (and others) bypassed corporate contribution limits to flow millions of dollars to candidates.
We also saw first passage of two proposed constitutional amendments, no-excuse absentee balloting, and registration and voting on the same day as the election. Both require the Constitution to be changed and must therefore be repassed by the Legislature in the next term (beginning 2021) as well, and then approved by the voters. New York cannot have a general voting by mail system because the current Constitution requires a reason not to show up at the polls, and that requirement must be deleted from the Constitution before people can just mail in their ballots without obtaining what we know today as an absentee ballot.
But one of the most intensely sought-after campaign reforms in New York and the nation was not on the calendars of the Assembly and Senate this past January.
That is public financing of elections, which many Americans believe is essential to halt the subversion of our democracy by Big Money and Special Interests. In fact, bills to create public financing of elections were passed by the New York State Assembly 17 times between 1983 and 2013, but never passed the Republican-controlled State Senate during all that time!!
The last one to pass the Assembly, A.4980-C, (by Mr. Silver), passed on May 7, 2013, by a vote of 87-49. The bill was modeled on the New York City public financing system as set up then.
Governor Cuomo had created the Moreland Commission on Public Corruption in 2013, and its final report in December of that year recommended the State create a public financing of the elections system to reduce the possible impact of large contributions on decision-making and to deter the appearance of corruption. The New York Times, in an editorial at that time, urged the Legislature to pass such a bill but failed to credit the Assembly for actually doing it regularly.
Annoyed by the lack of credit for the Assembly in the editorial – since I and my Assembly colleagues had been voting for public financing for decades – I had the Assembly staff help me research the legislation and found we had been passing it even before I got there in 1985. Those public financing of elections bills passed the Assembly, not just in 1983, but in 1986, 1987, 1989, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2008, in 2009, and again in 2013. I put out a press release at that time that, as usual, did not get wide publicity.
Public financing of elections just got a major boost because the newly-empowered Democrats in the United States House of Representatives have just introduced H.R. 1, a comprehensive good government reform bill that includes public financing of Congressional elections, along lines similar to the New York City system. It provides partial public financing by providing Federal matching funds for contributions up to $250, sets spending limits for candidates who agree to take the funds, and allows party committees to contribute to candidates. The preamble to the campaign finance part of the bill describes the damage done to our democracy by the Supreme Court decision, Citizens United, which halted spending limits by independent, outside Political Action Committees. The decision has enabled hundreds of millions of additional dollars to flow to the political system with little accountability. The House is likely to pass this bill sometime this year.
New York City’s voters just approved a Mayoral Charter Commission proposition to enhance the public funding of elections system in the City, changing the matching funds system from a 6-to-1 system for the first $ 175 of a private contribution, to an 8-to-1 system for the first $250, and limiting the maximum contribution from $ 4,750 for a citywide office, to $ 2,000.
Governor Cuomo put public financing of elections into his budget as a stand-alone bill modeled on the New York City 6-1 matching system. Senator Stewart-Cousins had sponsored a public financing bill in the 2017-18 term, S. 7593, before the Democrats took power. And Speaker Heastie sponsored a public financing bill in the 2015-16, the Fair Elections Act, that had been Silver’s bill before.
So it’s all there. The Legislature just has to act.