Today is the fourth anniversary of Citizens United and in the wake of record electoral spending, the need for an antidote is even more pressing than ever. Luckily, there is one: public financing of elections. We’ve shown how once Connecticut adopted public financing, the legislature passed a slate of policies to help working families. And now, New York State looks to be the latest to see the benefits and adopt a public financing program.
In his budget proposal, Governor Cuomo included a proposal to implement a public matching system for state political campaigns that would match contributions up to $175 at a $6-$1 ratio. Under this system, a $50 becomes a $350 donation with the original contribution and an additional $300 in matching funds. The match heightens the importance of small donors and can shift the focus of candidates away from affluent and corporate donors.
The state proposal is modeled after New York City’s matching program. Research has shown that after the program was implemented, there are more small donors contributing in New York City elections and that the donors are more diverse racially and economically. In contrast, the trend nationwide is towards predominately white, affluent donors dominating electoral spending.
When the donor base is diversified, the voices and concerns that candidates and elected officials hear are more representative of their constituency. In our current system, affluent and corporate interests dominate the electoral and political system. As a result, the priorities of the average American struggle to advance while the priorities of corporate and affluent interests regularly receive bipartisan support and success.
Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos repeated a common (and incorrect) criticism of public financing when he said that voters do not want their hard-earned money going to support the campaigns of candidates with whom they disagree and “[T]hey’d rather see that money spent on education, on pre-K, on our infrastructure or on tax cuts.” First, he's flat out wrong about the support for public financing. Polling from this month shows that 64 percent of New Yorkers support creating a system of public financing that uses state money to match smaller contributions. So not only do a large majority of New Yorkers want campaign finance reform, they are also willing to use tax payer dollars to do so.
The bigger flaw in Skelos’ statement is that the money for public financing could be used on other areas. The truth is that New York cannot afford to not have public financing. Already millions, if not billions, of dollars are given away to corporations through subsidies or tax breaks. These giveaways actually could be used for programs like universal pre-K or education but are instead directed toward corporate interests. Public financing would remove the hold that corporate and affluent interests have on policy priorities.
This reality is not a hypothetical. In Connecticut, special interest groups were able to prevent unclaimed bottle deposits from returning to the state for nearly 30 years. In the first election after public financing was implemented, the legislature voted to return the unclaimed deposits to the state, which provides up to $24 million a year in revenue and pays for their public financing program two times over.
Think about how just much New York could save once the toxic influence of money is removed from the state’s electoral and political system. Governor Cuomo's proposal is a welcome start.