To: NYS Board of Elections
From: Jose Disla
Subject: The problem of campaign finance reform in New York State
In the wake of Citizens United vs. FEC in 2010, where the United States Supreme Court essentially ruled that corporations can donate an unlimited amount of money in elections because they are protected under the first amendment right of freedom of speech, Governor Andrew Cuomo, in the New York State of State Address of 2012 discussed the significance of reforming existing campaign finance laws in the state. Governor declared that, “we must reconnect people to the political process and their government.” And he recognized the program in New York City, as a “good model for statewide reform.”Nonetheless, New York City in the mid-1980s was not a model of a functional government, as it was plagued with political scandals and corruption. In a response, legislation was introduced to inhibit the scandals and corrupt practices from undermining the integrity of the election process so the Campaign Finance Act was enacted. With public participation in the reform effort and a revision to the charter the Campaign Finance Board was established, “an independent and nonpartisan agency charged with limiting the role and influence of private money in the political process.” As a model for the State, New York City is leading the way in campaign finance with creation of fair elections that will level the playing field between candidates running for office and increase civic engagement.
In New York State, Torres-Spelliscy, Esq. and Weisbard, authors of "What Albany Could Learn from New York City: A Model of Meaningful Campaign Finance Reform in Action, claim that individual contribution limits are substantially higher relative to median income than the limits in New York City. The annual median income in New York State is $46,659; however the annual total amount that an individual can donate in an election year to a political campaign and a gubernatorial election is $150,000. In addition, during an election year, a candidate in the race for Governor can only receive an individual contribution of up to $55,900 and an individual can willingly give up to $94,200 in a calendar year to a political party (202). In reaction to such unreasonable contribution limits and the influence of big money in the elections, ironically a coalition of concerned wealthy individual, according to a New York Times article called “Wealthy Group Seeks to Reform Election Giving in New York”, have gathered to proposing to Governor that New York adopt a campaign finance system of public financing like that of New York City. The political implications of such high limits on a campaign can deter general voter engagement across different income brackets. Candidates soliciting campaign contributions from citizens will be more likely to solicit wealthy donors, whereby puts the candidates under the influence of those donors instead of their constituents of their specific districts.
In New York City politics, under the campaign finance program the individual is limited to a contribution of $4,950 during a citywide election “cycle.” Such modest limits that are imposed on candidates change the dynamics and how they approach their campaign. Under such a program there is an increase in small donors and in the demographics of voters (230). The campaign finance program in New York City is voluntary and it provides matching funds of 6 to 1 to candidates. To put into perspective what that means to a candidate that is in the program, “That means if you run for council, and I support you and give $100, the CFB matches it six-to-one, adding $600 to my $100 contribution. Now I've given your campaign $700!” A report jointly produced by the Campaign Finance Institute of Washington DC and the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law found that there has been an increase in diversity and voter engagement due to public matching fund program in place in New York City. The study found that New York City had a greater percentage of civic engagement across the city elections, relative to the state elections. “Almost 90 percent of the city’s census block groups were home to someone — and often, many people — who gave $175 or less to a City Council candidate in 2009. In contrast, according to a study this time done by Common Cause NY called $2,100 Club: What New York State Political Campaigns Cost, How Much Those Costs are Rising and Who’s Footing the Bill, found that “Over 99% of New Yorkers do not make direct contributions to state-level political campaigns. In 2003 and 2004, less than one percent of New Yorkers made a direct political contribution to a state legislative candidate or supporting party committee”.
The election laws in place in New York State that relate to corporate contributions are thought to be filled with ambiguity, as corporations circumvent the limits; Torres-Spelliscy, Esq. and Weisbard assert that New York State campaign finance law does not address how corporations circumvent such a limit with affiliated or subsidiary corporations (208). According to the New York State Board of Elections, corporations can make contribution to an election in the total of $5,000. An affiliated or subsidiary corporation has the same limit of $ 5,000. With this in place, a corporation could have several affiliates or subsidiaries which can provide them a way to undermine the donation limit. In contrast, New York City does not encounter the same donation issues because by campaign act candidates may not accept contributions from corporations, LLCs, or limited liability partnerships (LLPs). Even though contributions from corporations are prohibited, Torres-Spelliscy, Esq. and Weisbard assert candidates can still obtain donations from “unincorporated organizations such as community groups, employee organizations/unions, and associations (231).” Even though unions are very large organizations that have tens of thousands of member and can donate large amounts of money in state elections they are held to a different set of regulations under the campaign finance system in New York City. The unions can only donate a modest amount of “$4,950 to candidates for Mayor, $3,850 to candidates for Borough President and $2,750 to candidates for City Council (232).”
In order for the campaign finance system to work efficiently and effectively and prevent any violations of the election laws there has to be strong enforcement by a regulatory body. Torres-Spelliscy, Esq. and Weisbard claim that the current election laws at the discretion of New York State Board of Elections, does not provide the board with the authority to take specific actions against unlawful practices and imposition of penalties for violations are insignificant. “For example, those who illegally exceed the contribution limits in New York are not subject to any fines. The maximum civil fine for violating campaign finance disclosure laws is only $500”(224). In contrast, the New York City Campaign Finance Board, an independent nonpartisan board, has the power at its discretion to effectively apply and enforce campaign laws. The CFB “has the power to audit and subpoena campaigns before or after the election and can withhold public funds from candidates the Board believes are not in compliance (236).” With such power the CFB is recognized as strong regulatory body, in comparison to the Board of Elections at the state level enforces the laws.
With enormous amounts of money being poured into elections as a result of the U.S Supreme Court case of Citizen United vs. FEC in 2010, campaign finance reform will continue to plague our national political narrative. Over the years, elections have become increasingly expensive so in response to these current events state governments across the nation have begun to take a look at what they can do to prevent the flood of money from entering into local and state elections. As a model for campaign finance reform for New York State, New York City has created such a program that studies have recognized it for its effectiveness. The campaign finance program, although voluntary, has prompted the increase in small donor participation, discouragement of a political climate of dependence on corporate and wealthy contributions, and an assurance of accountability in the political process of elections. In the election cycle approaches, New York State political officials will have consider the issue of campaign finance and how they begin to take the lead protecting the integrity of the political process.
I want to thank the NYS Board of Elections for taking the time to read my memorandum and I look forward to working with you and the NYS legislature to pass legislation on this issue.
Cuomo, Andrew M. "2012 New York State of the State Address." Building A Better NY...with you. (2012): 35. Web. 20 Aug. 2012.
"New York City Campaign Finance Board." . N.p., 2012. Web. 20 Aug 2012.
Torres-Spelliscy, Ciara, and Ari Weisbard. "WHAT ALBANY COULD LEARN FROM NEW YORK CITY: A MODEL OF MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM IN ACTION." (2008): 56. Print. .
Kaplan, Thomas. "Wealthy Group Seeks to Reform Election Giving in New York." New York Times. (2012): 1. Print.
Hamilton, Alec. " Campaign Finance Ruling May Make NYC a Model for the Nation ." WNYC. (2011): 3. Web. 20 Aug. 2012. Malbin, Michael J. "Study: Public Financing Contributes to Greater Diversity of Participation in NYC Elections." . Campaign Finance Institute, May 14 2012. Web. 20 Aug 2012. Arbetman, Liam, Megan Quattlebaum, and Rachel Leon. "$2,100 Club: What New York State Political Campaigns Cost, How Much Those Costs are Rising and Who’s Footing the Bill." Common Cause/NY Report. (March 2006): 68. Print. .
New York State . Board Of Elections. Contribution Limits. Web. .
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