On Nov. 6, New York City voters will have the chance to limit the corrupting influence of large political contributions by voting “yes” on Ballot Question 1, a proposal from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Charter Revision Commission to lower donation limits and increase public matching funds.
New York is already one of the few cities that matches campaign contributions up to $175, a system that empowers normal citizens – who do not have thousands of dollars to spare – to financially support their preferred candidates. By doing so, it reins in the influence of big money in politics, and most candidates in New York City participate.
Still, there is work to be done when it comes to campaign finance in the Big Apple. Our contribution limits are too high, leaving a majority of the funding for many campaigns coming from large private contributions. This gives the wealthiest 1 percent an outsized say in who can afford to participate in our electoral processes, and pushes normal New Yorkers out of the running.
In light of this, the Charter Revision Commission's proposed changes to increase public matching funds could not come at a better time. While many potential 2020 presidential candidates are refusing contributions from political action committees, candidates at the local level do not have the same high visibility. They are often targeted by donors seeking to give the maximum contribution in order to get the most access and influence over local decisions on important issues like land use and education.
To address this, the proposal would lower the maximum contribution limit from $5,100 to $2,000, raise the maximum matchable contribution for candidates for citywide office from $175 to $250, and increase public matching funds for small contributions from six times the donated amount to eight times the donated amount.
As an example of how this change would actually work, under our current system a candidate for mayor can get a maximum contribution of $5,100, and a small donor’s contribution can generate an additional $1,050 in public funds ($175 x 6). Under the proposed changes, the largest contribution a candidate could receive would be $2,000, and she or he could then get up to $2,000 in matching funds from a small donation ($250 x 8). A small contributor, donating only $250, will get most of the benefit of a large contributor.
This gives candidates an incentive to shift their attention to raising more small donations, instead of vying for a handful of big donations. That should make politicians more sensitive to the concerns of normal voters rather than wealthy donors.
It’s important to remember that these changes are not to benefit candidates – they are for the voters. Historically, many big-dollar campaign donors in the city have been landlords, who are hoping to pad their bottom lines by influencing public policy in their favor. By decreasing the maximum donation amount and providing more public matching funds, this commission is trying to make politics more accessible to renters and other working-class New Yorkers. These regulations would allow anyone, not just millionaires and people who can make friends with millionaires, to participate and run for office.
In a city as rich and unequal as New York, we need to ensure that wealthy benefactors do not have outsized power in choosing who our candidates are, and how effectively candidates can share their ideas with the public. By increasing public matching funds and lowering the maximum contribution amount for candidates, the commission is helping return power to working-class New Yorkers, who are the majority of the city’s residents. But the commission can’t do it alone. Come Nov. 6, it’s on New York City’s voters to get big money out of politics by voting “yes” on Ballot Question 1.