“Election creep” is in full effect in New York City, so why not give the candidates their matching funds earlier? That was one of the questions posed on Monday by the city's Campaign Finance Board (CFB) to the City Council’s Governmental Operations Committee during a hearing to review the CFB’s 2013 post-election report.
“Election creep” is the term to describe how election season and campaign fundraisers seem to be starting earlier every election cycle—think “Ready for Hillary” signs in 2013 or former City Council speaker Christine Quinn being crowned “Mayor Presumptive” by The New Yorker by April 2012 (17 months before the primary) after her campaign raised nearly $5 million before the end of 2011 (22 months before the primary).
But Quinn—like other candidates for public office in New York City—were not allowed to receive the public matching funds provided by the Campaign Finance Board until the ballots were certified by the Board of Elections, some five weeks before the primary. So the CFB’s report recommends determining who receives public funds as early as four business days after the June 10 deadline for candidates to sign up for public matching funds.
That earlier deadline might not do much in terms of quelling early election season enthusiasm, but it could allow candidates who are not well-funded to campaign earlier. As the CFB Executive Director Amy Loprest testified in the Council chambers Monday, “an earlier payment date would give candidates certainty about public funds as a resource to help candidates plan their expenditures for a busy campaign season.”
Loprest added that the earlier date would incentivize candidates to meet the threshold to qualify for public funds earlier, and would also give campaigns more time to address compliance issues.
The earlier deadline was just one of 14 recommendations the CFB provided in its 136-page report. Other highlights include renewing the board's call to keep candidates from accepting any organizational contributions—from corporations to PACs to unions—and limiting the source of private contributions solely to individuals. The report also suggests that the City Council allow voters to opt out of the printed voter guides sent to the mailbox of every New York City voter and instead send it digitally, an idea that drew praise from Councilman Ben Kallos, the chair of the Governmental Operations Committee.
“Thank you for being a rare agency that is looking for ways to cut your own budget,” Kallos said.
Apart from the recommendations, the CFB’s report analyzed spending in every 2013 City race and highlighted the Board’s expenditures and actions in areas like voter assistance.
The report also suggested further study and analysis on raising spending limits in elections, along with lowering campaign contribution limits. The CFB stopped short of any specific recommendations to the Council in this area, but noted that independent expenditures reached an all-time high in the 2013 mayoral race.
Loprest noted the public funds program is one way to balance private and public funds. “I think it’s a good balance now, [but] I think that its worth always to consider whether or not we hit the right balance,” she said.
Rachael Fauss of Citizens Union showed what those changes could look like in her testimony. The good government organization suggested raising the spending cap for City Council races from $182,000 over the cycle to $290,000—that higher number being about equal to the highest independent expenditure in a 2013 City Council primary.
However, there was a lack of consensus on raising the spending cap among good government representatives in attendance. Gene Russianoff of the New York Public Interest Group said he would have to think about it, saying “there’s no science to setting these limits, its an art.” And Lauren George of Common Cause New York said her group has “advocated against such an arms race,” and believed it would also lead to a dramatic increase in public expenditures.
When Brooklyn Councilman David Greenfield and Manhattan Councilman Mark Levine asked what the CFB was doing to ease credit card contributions, they were assured that a credit card widget will be available for campaign websites by mid-2015, and that more actions are being taken to improve the ease of reporting those often-difficult contributions. The CFB is also looking into allowing contributions by text message, a move Kallos said would help lower-income voters contribute. Loprest said new rules on contributions are due in December.
And while Greenfield asked whether the public matching fund program practically required candidates to hire an outside consultant to deal with its complexities, Kallos praised the CFB.
"I am a first time candidate,” he said, recalling his tough primary against Assemblyman Micah Kellner. “The more troubling case is that we did need an attorney for ballot offenses. It’s a testament to the CFB that you do not need to hire an attorney to get public financing and public matching, but you do need to hire an attorney just to get on the ballot.”