Karen Scharff is the Executive Director of USAction affiliate Citizen Action of New York.
The influence of money in politics has thrown our democracy into crisis.
Lobbyists and fundraisers use five-figure campaign contributions to skew lawmaker priorities away from the public interest and toward their own narrow concerns. The result is that New Yorkers have lost faith in their lawmakers and their ability to serve the public.
Fair elections reform will restore New York’s democratic integrity by leveling the playing field for all New Yorkers. If passed by New York state lawmakers, fair elections will open new opportunities for voters to participate in campaigns regardless of their level of income.
The central fair elections reform involves creating citizen-funded elections through a small donor matching system. Any contribution up to $175 will be matched at a 6-to-1 ratio: If you donate $40 to a candidate, the candidate receives a total of $240. The result is that candidates can run viable campaigns without having to collect huge checks.
Matching funds are important because they encourage campaigns to design strategies focused on voters and not elite donors. Candidates will have a powerful new incentive to build broad fundraising coalitions among working- and middle-class New Yorkers instead of relying on a handful of CEO campaign contributors. Matching funds will make the voices of everyday New Yorkers just as loud as wealthy elites.
We know that citizen-funded elections will work because of their success in increasing voter participation in New York City elections. The overall pool of campaign contributors has grown significantly since the creation of a matching-fund system in 1988. Diversity has also increased significantly: The donor pool to city elections now includes residents of all incomes and all races and ethnicities.
While fair elections will clearly strengthen our democracy, opponents claim that citizen-funded elections will be too costly. But research by the Campaign Finance Institute has indicated that their concerns are misplaced. Fair elections will only cost $25 to $40 million, or under $2 a year per New Yorker. For less than the price of a cup of coffee, voters will once again have faith in our democracy and trust that our lawmakers are fighting for us and not wealthy donors.
Fair elections will also p
roduce a high return on investment through a more effective and efficient government. Once lawmakers are free from the influence of greedy donors, they will be able to address fiscal policies that work for all New Yorkers. This includes closing loopholes that enable corporations to dodge state taxes, thus robbing New York of billions in revenue. Fair elections will likely pay for itself many times over.
Lawmakers have heard our demands for real democracy and are joining us in fighting for fair elections.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has announced his strong support, the state Assembly has passed fair elections bills for years, and it is likely that a majority of state senators would vote in favor of a reform bill if it comes to the floor. The public needs to let them know we want a vote this year.
Karen Scharff is executive director of Citizen Action of New York, a grassroots organization with more than 20,000 members statewide.