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Working for Fair Elections in New York

by Kristen Essel and Ashley McKay

Public Citizen interns

The police officers pushed us toward our fellow protestors to clear an aisle. The officers stood between the crowd we were in and 21 protestors who sat in front of the doors to the Independent Democratic Caucus’ office.

We were at the Capitol building in Albany, N.Y., with people from a coalition of organizations, holding up signs calling for state senators to vote on issues that ranged from protecting the environment, to guaranteeing equality for female and transgender citizens of New York.

We were there to campaign for a public campaign financing system to limit large corporate and individual funding of New York state elections. The Fair Elections Act called for a financing system in which, for every dollar given by an individual to a candidate, six dollars would be given by the state, up to a certain threshold.

This system would have created an incentive for candidates to collect multiple small donations from many people rather than collect primarily large contributions from a few corporations and very wealthy individuals.

This system already works in New York City, which implemented a small-donor matching system in 1998. According to a study by Citizens Union of the City of New York, a larger group of candidates ran for office to the City Council because of the city’s public financing system and the challenger was more likely to be victorious over the incumbent.

Another study, by the Brennan Center, shows that a much more racially and economically diverse pool of people contribute to City Council candidates in New York City than to candidates running for state office as a result of the small-donor matching system. Further, the study shows that City Council candidates who participate in the city’s public financing system rate the value of their constituents higher than State Assembly candidates do.

We went to Albany as part of Public Citizen’s Democracy is For People campaign to support the Fair Elections Act. We also went to Long Island to volunteer with the Long Island Progressive Coalition (LIPC). With LIPC, we focused our efforts on persuading Senator Jack Martins of Great Neck to vote in favor of the bill.

Every morning at 7 a.m., we were at the Great Neck train station, distributing fliers to commuters heading into the city and speaking with them about campaign finance reform and the Fair Elections Act. After a few days, we started seeing some of the same people, who gave us feedback about our effort. Many people said that they called Senator Martins and asked for his support on the issue. Some even thanked us for the work we were doing.

During the week of June 17, the last week of the legislative session, the bill looked like it had enough votes in the Senate to pass, but there was a problem. The Fair Elections Act was not going to be brought to the Senate floor for a vote. The Senate majority coalition, made up of legislators from the Republican Party and the Independent Democratic Caucus, refused to bring the Fair Elections Act to the floor for a vote.  And this was not just for our bill, but also for six other pieces of progressive legislation that would have helped New Yorkers around the state.

On June 18, groups working for the six pieces of blocked legislation joined together to march on Albany. We demanded that each piece of legislation receive a vote in the Senate.  Twenty-one activists held a sit-in, blocking the office doors of Co- Majority Leader Senator Jeffrey Klein and the Independent Democratic Caucus. The police were called in, and they arrested each of the 21 activists. To see civil disobedience firsthand like that was very powerful. You could see the dedication that each person had for our issues.

Despite these efforts, the Fair Elections Act was never voted on. Instead, Gov. Andrew Cuomo created a Moreland Commission, tasked with reviewing political corruption in Albany. The Moreland Act grants a governor authority to investigate any state agency — in this case, the state Board of Elections. This commission will review corruption charges of public officials, campaign financing and contribution limits, and how adequately New York’s election laws are enforced. The commission is scheduled to release its findings and recommendations in a preliminary report on Dec. 1, 2013.

The challenge ahead will be to make sure that report that the Moreland Commission releases is as strong as possible and that its recommendations are implemented.

Look out for ways that you can get involved in this effort through Public Citizen and Fair Elections of New York.  We want to keep building momentum for next year when we as we work to make sure the recommendations of the Moreland Commission are implemented, and we will continue to fight for the passage of the Fair Elections Act.

The effort to pass public financing in New York is a key part of the national movement to get corporate money out of elections. It is time for our lawmakers, the people we elect to represent us, to have the choice to opt out of accepting corporate contributions and still have a chance of winning their election. The Fair Elections Act would do just that.