These are dismal times for small-d democrats: a degraded public discourse emanating from the White House; corporate control of the on-line “public square” known as Facebook; the continued tidal wave of “secret money” from a tiny number of hyper-wealthy individuals that threatens to drown us all; and a Supreme Court that increasingly treats the right to donate and spend money as more precious than the right to live in a democracy characterized by racial, gender, and class equity.
But if you vote in New York City, there’s a real chance to concoct an antidote to the chaos that surrounds us.
Earlier this year, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the creation of a Charter Revision Commission and, in doing so, asked the commissioners to look closely at improving voter access and reducing the influence of big money in politics. Our message to the Charter Revision Commission can be summed up in two words: Be bold. The basic principle of democracy—the political equality of persons—is under attack. New York City can use this process to powerfully reassert that ideal, and not a moment too soon. We believe the nation will take notice.
One of the defining precepts of democracy is supposed to be “one person, one vote,” not “one dollar, one vote.” New York City has already taken steps to make this so through its system of public financing of campaigns. Under the current system, participating candidates can receive matching funds at a rate of $6 to $1 for contributions up to $175. While that’s a good start, wealthy and well-connected donors—including those who “bundle” contributions from others—still wield outsized political influence, at the expense of everyday New Yorkers. There is more to be done to ensure that the people funding New York elections reflect the city’s residents.
What would a bold proposal for campaign-finance reform look like? For starters, it would dramatically lower the current limit of nearly $5,000 for contributions to mayoral candidates. For candidates who choose to participate in the City’s public-financing program, the limit could be dropped tenfold, to $500. For those who opt out of our matching-fund system, we could lower the limit to $1,000. (In New York City, contribution limits apply to all candidates, whether or not they participate in the city’s public-financing program.)
Admittedly, either contribution level, $500 or $1,000, is still much more money than the average New Yorker can part with. But that’s okay, because lower contribution limits for all candidates should come hand-in-hand with another key reform: dramatically increasing the amount of public matching funds that candidates who opt into the system can receive, especially for the smallest contributions. What if contributions under $100 were matched at a rate of 8 to 1, or 10 to 1?