Big Spenders Aside, NYC Campaign Finance Moves Us Forward
“There is a clear link between the integrity of public officials and campaign finance law. Any time elected officials or candidates solicit or receive funds from private sources, the public perceives that there is the potential for corruption to contaminate the political process.”
So reads the newly released report (pdf) of New York City’s Campaign Finance Board. With a clarion call for engaging and educating ordinary citizens, holding candidates accountable, promoting competitive elections and – most importantly – enhancing the integrity of policy making, the report describes the largely positive record of New York City’s campaign finance system in 2009. The voluntary system of matching small campaign contributions for participating candidates (currently at a 6-1 ratio) while imposing strict limits on contribution size and disclosures was first enacted in 1988 and has been updated in recent years.
The New York Times' Michael Barbaro reads the report as a refutation of the conventional wisdom about 2009 as a city election year characterized exclusively by Mayor Bloomberg’s outsize campaign spending:
changes enacted before the race encouraged 34,000 New Yorkers to make campaign donations for the first time; drastically curtailed the role of businesses, political committees and lobbyists in campaigns; and caused a major drop in donations from those doing business with the city.
Perhaps most intriguingly, the new data suggests that, in a year when voter turnout was historically low and pundits treated the mayoral election as a foregone conclusion, many New Yorkers of more modest means felt compelled to participate in the election process.
“While the program cannot guarantee a participating candidate will always overcome a high-spending non-participant,” the report itself notes, “the 2009 election shows that public funds can provide resources to communicate a message effectively.” New York City’s system promoted more competitive elections, helping to make challengers more competitive against incumbent officeholders and giving them the ability to make their voices heard. While New York City’s is not a full Fair Elections campaign system like the Arizona model highlighted by the Drum Major Institute in the past, it is a testament to the power of removing even a portion of the big money influence from the political process. New York’s successful city level policy should be an inspiration for other cities and for the federal and state campaign reform we urgently need.