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How Can New York Advance the Cause of Racial Justice? Start with Fair Elections.

Amshula K. Jayaram

On Monday, a joint hearing of the New York State Senate and Assembly heard arguments for public financing of elections, the best policy tool we have to push back against the presence of big money in politics and to push forward on the march toward racial equity.

Research shows that 90 percent of campaign donors are wealthy, white, and male. Despite the advances made in civil rights, we continue to have governments at the local, state, and federal levels that are quite literally bankrolled by rich white men. As a result, lawmakers are more responsive to the policy priorities of the donor class than they are to ordinary people, leaving out communities of color as well as low- and middle-income communities.

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposal, which is now being debated in the legislature, includes a small donor matching program where for every $1 a citizen donates to a campaign, the government will match it with $6. Connecticut adopted a similar system in 2008, which has proven successful and led to progressive victories including the passage of increased minimum wage, mandatory sick days, and adoption of an Earned Income Tax Credit.

According to research conducted by Demos, Connecticut’s system of public financing has also increased diversity in the state legislature. Latinx representation reached its highest levels in 2012 and the percentage of female lawmakers was 32 percent. The system is also popular with voters, getting an 80 percent approval rating in a survey conducted by Common Cause.

At the core of this proposal is a chance for ordinary people to support candidates who share their values and to hold them accountable once they are in office. At the root, public financing is about giving all of our communities the power to make their voices heard.

Issues like voting rights continue to maintain a strong connection in the minds of the public to civil rights, and voter suppression tactics are widely seen as a means to disenfranchise black and brown voters. However, campaign finance has managed to avoid any meaningful association with racial inequality. The failure to effectively connect these dots has made the fight for fair elections easier for lawmakers to distance themselves from or to deprioritize it. This is a mistake. Whether the issue is housing, fair wages or bail reform - which are critically important to communities of color - big industry donors will almost always stand in the way of real progress.

This week, the Campaign Finance Institute released an analysis of the impact of a small donor matching system on New York State elections. According to CFI’s analysis, under this system the percentage of small donations for Assembly and Senate races would more than triple, while the percentage of large donations would be cut in half. For the governor’s race, large donor contributions would drop from 90 percent to 54 percent. CFI also concluded that under a public financing system, most candidates would actually be better off financially than they are under the current system.

Despite the obvious benefits of this program, the reluctance in Albany is palpable. The status quo has made it easier for candidates who do have access to wealthy networks to fundraise quickly and avoid the harder work of engaging the electorate to fund a campaign through small donations. It is undoubtedly a more difficult path (though worth noting that there is no evidence it has a negative impact on incumbents) but it is also a necessary one. This is a moment of real crisis in New York State and beyond, with record high levels of homelessness, dangers of deportation for the undocumented, and a climate that is swiftly spinning beyond the point of no return. Communities of color live out the realities of these issues every day but know that as long as democracy can be bought and paid for, their voices will not be heard, and these issues will likely not be addressed.

Finally, as this debate plays out during Black History Month, it is worth remembering that February is about more than celebrating the contributions of African Americans to our society. It’s also about a commitment to change the balance of power in this country. A vote to curb the presence of corporate money and wealthy donors will demonstrate that commitment at a profound and fundamental level, which will likely resonate with voters in ways that no stump speech or soundbite could. This session, we look to leadership in Albany to break the chains of money in politics and set Democracy free.