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?
These two reforms alone would go a long way to diminishing the influence of major donors and bundlers while providing substantial “no strings attached” public funding for candidates who agree to participate in the program. Successful candidates will be those who can convince 10,000 people to give them $20 each, rather than getting 2 lobbyists to “bundle” the same amount of money from 20 rich couples at $10,000 a pop. Which of these approaches seems healthier? To ask the question is to answer it.
For many New Yorkers, there is another contribution limit imposed not by law but by our own economic reality: zero. The median family income in New York City hovers around $50,000. After rent, food, health care, utilities and transportation, it’s easy to run out of money before you run out of month. And if you do manage to eke out a little extra income, contributing to a political candidate isn’t likely to rank high on your list of what to do with it.
To bring this large segment of New Yorkers into the process, the Charter Revision Commission should borrow a page from reforms recently enacted in Seattle. That city’s “Democracy Vouchers” program provides all residents—including homeless residents, who have been politically activated by the system—with their own source of campaign funds: four vouchers, each valued at $25, which residents can dispense as they see fit. In New York City, residents could “contribute” their vouchers to a candidate or party of their choice, which would then “redeem” the vouchers for actual money to help cover the costs of mailings and literature, canvassers, and get-out-the-vote efforts.
And the creativity doesn’t have to stop there. Since the Citizens United decision, democracy advocates have been rightfully alarmed at the aggressive growth of Super PACs funded by a handful of millionaires and billionaires. It’s a problem that limiting contributions to candidates cannot solve. But New York City could be a pioneer in developing a different remedy: a public match on low-dollar contributions to “People PACs” to make it possible for grassroots groups and New Yorkers of modest means to have a fighting chance against the developers and hedge-fund managers who can fund independent expenditures with a single whopping check. While we may never get all money out of politics, we can loosen the influence of big money by amplifying the voices of everyday people.
Most New Yorkers are paying far less attention to the Charter Revision Commission’s deliberations than they are to the alternately absurd and horrifying nightmare playing out in Washington, DC. But nothing would represent a more emphatic repudiation of Trump’s agenda than a system in which low- and middle-income New Yorkers have as much political clout as deep-pocketed real-estate developers. That’s a worthwhile goal to which the commissioners should aspire.