Elections and Campaign Finance Reform
Earlier this year, in response to Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, the state Legislature passed and the governor signed the New York State Democracy Protection Act, which instituted new regulations for online political advertisements including disclosure of who purchased them and requiring the BOE to archive all online ads.
While those were lauded as important measures to provide more transparency in campaign expenditures, it’s on the fundraising side that things remain opaque, and reformers say the state’s laws need substantive improvement. A significant proportion of campaign contributions flow to candidates through limited liability companies, which are not required to disclose their owners and can help individuals and corporate entities evade limits on donations (which are already far too high, many argue). The LLC loophole is, perhaps, the most derided aspect of state elections and one that both Democrats and Republicans exploit, though it has most benefited Cuomo and Senate Republicans, two entities most friendly to real estate interests, which are often behind the creation of LLCs.
“Corporations shouldn’t be allowed to buy elections,” said Julissa Bisono, lead organizer at Make the Road New York, an immigrant-advocacy group and another Fair Elections coalition member. “Every year we are up in Albany fighting on housing, fighting on more funding for our schools and it’s just been really difficult to pass legislation because big corporations are contributing money to these elected officials…so that they will block legislation that would affect low income communities, and communities of color.”
Cuomo, the biggest beneficiary of LLC donations in recent election cycles, has repeatedly vowed to close it but did not put significant political capital into doing so, blaming Senate Republicans for blocking the legislation. Next year, that is expected to change as the governor has made it among his top priorities and Democrats will take control of the Senate having run on the issue.
Democratic control over both the Assembly and Senate also bolsters the odds of the state adopting a public campaign financing program, possibly similar to New York City’s voluntary program that matches small dollar donations with public funds to help level the playing field for candidates. A pilot program for the state comptroller race in 2014 failed to gain any traction but there has been renewed attention in this last cycle to campaign financing and how it determines not only who is elected to office but what legislation eventually makes it through the Legislature.
“There is absolutely no excuse not to get rid of the LLC loophole and no excuse not to bring publicly financed campaigns to a vote,” said Fordham Law professor Zephyr Teachout, in an email. Teachout unsuccessfully ran in the gubernatorial primary in 2014 and in the attorney general primary this year, both times emphasizing the need to tackle rampant corruption in state politics, starting with campaign finance reform. “If there are people out there who oppose publicly financed campaigns, we need to know now and be ready to primary them,” she added.
There are other ways that New York can also tweak election management to encourage both turnout and efficient administration. This year, the state held two primaries, one in June for congressional races and the September primary for state races. Advocates have repeatedly pointed out that multiple primary elections both confuse voters and lead to fatigue, questioning why the state Legislature would spend more money on separate ones instead of consolidating them to be held on a single day.
The New York City BOE’s election fiasco has also prompted calls for reforming the agency, which is funded by the city but is technically a state entity. The City Council and Mayor de Blasio have sought to improve the board’s functioning by professionalizing its staff and reducing the influence of partisan appointees, though there is little enthusiasm even among Democrats for removing the county political parties from nominating BOE commissioners. The Board is under no obligation to heed the city’s authority.
“We see it every election day, that the board of elections is in desperate need of reform,” Gianaris said. “Once we have an elections committee chair which should be in the next couple of weeks, that should be something we focus on pretty aggressively.”
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