Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1017 Sat, 23 Jun 2018 02:55:33 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Hears Expert Testimony on Campaign Finance Reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7744:mayor-charter-revision-commission-hears-expert-testimony-on-campaign-finance-reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7744:mayor-charter-revision-commission-hears-expert-testimony-on-campaign-finance-reform charter comm rev2

The Charter Revision Commission


The Charter Revision Commission empaneled by Mayor Bill de Blasio met on Thursday at NYU for the second of four expert advisory issue forums, discussing what could be the marquee issue for this year’s commission: changing the city’s campaign finance system. The first meeting, held Tuesday, focused on voting and election reform.

Like the first hearing, Thursday’s saw the commission hear from invited experts on the topic at hand, and was broken into two sections. For campaign finance, the first panel discussed context and perspective of the city’s system from politicians and experts, and the second provided recommendations.

The commission, consisting of 15 members appointed by de Blasio, including Chair Cesar Perales, will finalize a list of proposed changes to the city Charter by early September that will then appear on the general election ballot in November for voters to approve or disapprove.

Representatives from the city’s nonpartisan Campaign Finance Board provided five recommendations to the commission for improving the city’s public campaign finance system and its centerpiece, the public matching funds program. The board recommends:

  1. Lowering individual contribution limits from $5,100 to $2,250 for citywide offices, from $3,950 to $1,750 for boroughwide offices, and from $2,850 to $1,250 for City Council seats.

  2. Increase the matching funds rate from 6-to-1 (for every dollar under $175 raised via an individual contribution, the city disburses $6) to 8-to-1. This would be coupled with an increase of the maximum matchable amount, from $175 to $250.

  3. Increase the cap on public funds as a percentage of a campaign’s total spending limit from 55 percent to 65 percent.

  4. Lower the threshold to qualify for matching funds for citywide races, from $250,000 from 1,000 eligible contributors for mayor and $125,000 from 500 contributors for public advocate and comptroller, to $125,000 and $75,000 respectively with the same number of contributors.

  5. Lower the minimum individual contribution counted toward the public match threshold, from $10 to $5.

Others, including advocates, elected officials, and academics, also provided recommendations to the commission, with some differing from the CFB and others in line with it.

The city’s public election financing system, whereby donations to candidates of up to $175 are matched by public dollars at a rate of 6 to 1, has been cited as a model nationwide for placing more power in elections in the hands of the average voter. City Council Member Carlos Menchaca testified to the committee that he never would have been able to mount an insurgent campaign without the system, and that it also allowed him to spend more time with voters rather than donors from out of the district.

“What the system allowed me to do was to have a conversation with donors at $5, $10, and my branded experience of $38 for the 38th District, about the campaign finance,” Menchaca said. “That was my beginning part of my conversation with everyone, that their dollars would multiply by six. That allowed folks to feel empowered in a challenger, and for people that were not entrenched in the system, which is where I had to go build my political support, became possible.” Menchaca said his average contribution amount for his 2013 campaign, in which he pulled off the rare feat of unseating an incumbent, was “around $100.”

The public matching program came into being in 1989, after a wave of corruption scandals in city, state, and federal government led to the passage of Local Law 8, which established a 1:1 match. The match was increased to 4:1 through the 1998 Charter Revision Commission, and was increased again to the current 6:1 in 2007.

The system has significantly lowered candidate reliance on political action committee (PAC) money and other “big money” donations found at other levels of elected government, including state-level elections in New York. The CFB presented data comparing an unnamed City Council member’s finances with that of a member of Congress and of the state Senate. The member of Congress raised 77 percent of their money from PACs and 0.6 percent from small contributions of $200 or less. The state senator raised 89 percent from PACs and 7 percent from small contributions. The City Council member, on the other hand, raised 25 percent from PACs, and 62 percent from small contributions when matching fund allocations were taken into account.

However, for citywide offices, the contribution percentages can be a red herring. In 2017, while 73 percent of contributions to mayoral candidates participating in the public match program came from donors who contributed under $175, 45 percent of the actual dollar value of the total contributions came from 650 individuals who donated the maximum for the 2017 election, which was $4,950 (it has since risen automatically, per law, to $5,100). For the City Council, the distribution is more equal, and in fact, Council candidates as a whole received more money in 2017 from small donors than from contributors of the maximum amount allowed by the program.

Non-participants in the program can take the form of a rich self-funder like Michael Bloomberg, but can also take the form of an incumbent without serious competition not wanting to use taxpayer funds for a formality election or interested in looser restrictions on their spending. Non-participation in competitive races is fairly rare, though. According to the CFB’s Assistant Executive Director for Public Affairs, Eric Friedman, 28 out of 64 non-participants in the public finance system in 2017 reported raising $0.

Others who testified were largely in line with the CFB on raising the match rate and reducing the maximum allowable contribution by about half. Advocates broke with the CFB on the issue of the match cap: while the CFB recommended that the cap be lifted to 65 percent, Alex Camarda of Reinvent Albany and Michael Malbin of SUNY Albany’s Campaign Finance Institute recommended that the cap be eliminated entirely, which would have the city provide more public funds relative to the spending limit.

“I don’t see what purpose that serves,” Malbin said of the matching cap. Camarda and Malbin both endorsed raising the rate of matching funds rate above 6-to-1, but did not recommend a specific rate.

For the 2021 election, the spending limit for a City Council candidate is set at $190,000, and the maximum public funds disbursement is $104,500, or 55 percent of the spending limit. Eliminating the cap would mean that a candidate could spend up to 85 percent of the spending limit using public funds. City Council Member Ben Kallos recently re-introduced a bill that would eliminate the matching funds cap.

CFB representatives were asked by Commissioner Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at NYU’s Brennan Center, why the board is endorsing a 65 percent cap instead of elimination. CFB Executive Director Amy Loprest said that raising it to 85 percent would be impractical.

“We make public funds payments to candidates who are on the ballot and who are opposed on the ballot, therefore we can only make those payments once the ballot has been set,” said Loprest. She noted that according to state election law, ballots could only be set after the end of petitioning. “The ballot is set roughly at the end of July, beginning of August. Which means that we make our first public funds payments at the beginning of August, which leaves about five weeks before the primary.” She noted that this would cause campaigns to be constrained to spending most of their money in the five weeks before the primary.

Camarda agreed in part.

“I think that in citywide races, 65 percent is plenty because citywide candidates don’t often hit the cap,” he said. “Our concern would be for City Council, because as I mentioned, 30 percent of the candidates in 2013 actually hit the cap.” The CFB stated that it wouldn’t oppose eliminating the cap, but that it was not its first preference.

The commissioners, including Chair Perales, a former Secretary of State under Governor Andrew Cuomo, appeared receptive to the changes proposed by the CFB and the other testifiers, for the most part. Most lines of questioning were of an inquisitive rather than adversarial tone. The commissioner who was most skeptical and critical of the proposed changes was John Siegal, an attorney and a de Blasio appointee to the Civilian Complaint Review Board.

“The reason, clearly, that mayoral candidates rely more on big contributions is because it takes a lot of money to run an effective mayoral campaign,” said Siegal, who donated $4,500 to de Blasio’s 2013 mayoral campaign. “And while it sounds good and feels good to say ‘let’s lower the contribution limit,’ that is going to have consequences. Candidates are going to have to work way harder to raise money. They’re going to have to spend a lot more time raising money.” He noted that there is an “efficiency to getting on the phone and getting 500 people to give $4,500 or $5,100 that is going to be lost here.”

The CFB’s Chair, Frederick Schaffer, said that he would agree with Siegal if the only recommendation made by the Board was to lower the contribution limit.

“That’s why we want to increase the match for citywide officials from 6-to-1 to 8-to-1, and increase the actual amount from $175 to $250,” Schaffer said. “We crunched those numbers precisely with this problem in mind, and we think that the overall effect of those three things together meets the concern that you have just expressed.”

Siegal was also critical of a proposed “geographical requirement” for citywide candidates, which would force them to fundraise around the city. Malbin’s presentation to the commission noted that most money raised for citywide contests comes from only five City Council districts, representing Manhattan around Central Park and Brownstone Brooklyn. For citywide candidates, Malbin recommended that they must show a minimum number of contributors in 20 of 51 Council districts to qualify for public matching funds. The CFB suggested that citywide candidates raise 50 contributions from each borough.

Siegal called this a “fundamentally different requirement than we’ve ever had in the system,” saying that previous campaign finance law was limiting the money candidates can raise rather than explicitly saying who it must be raised from, which he said would set a bad precedent, “engineering campaign fundraising.”

“Have you actually looked at how many Republicans raise 50 matching contributions in [the] Bronx? Or how many Democrats actually raise 50 contributions in Staten Island? And do we really want to tell candidates that they have to go out and introduce themselves to communities where they have no background and no ties, and the first thing they have to do is go ask for money. That doesn’t seem to me that it’s getting money out of politics, it seems to me like it’s pushing the fundraising race into places for other reasons,” he added.

Schaffer dismissed the notion that 50 contributions per borough was unattainable for a seeker of citywide office.

“We’re trying to identify people who are reasonably likely to be real candidates, and so we thought the number 50 was really quite minimal, even for a Democrat in Staten Island or a Republican in the Bronx,” Schaffer said. There are currently three citywide elected offices: Mayor, Public Advocate, and Comptroller.

Other commissioners also had questions and concerns. Dale Ho, of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, questioned whether it was appropriate to put such specific numbers, limits, and thresholds into the city charter, which he characterized as difficult to change and rarely brought up for debate, versus the easier-to-change city code.

“As you can see from all this machinery here, [the charter] is quite difficult to amend,” Ho said. “If it turns out that the number should change over time, maybe the limits need to be reduced even more, maybe the match numbers need to go up even higher, maybe we miscalibrate something and we need to adjust something. If these changes are in the city charter, that kind of ties the hands of the city in a way that if they’re in the code, maybe they’re a little easier to adjust.”

Schaffer, a former top appointee in the office of the city’s Corporation Counsel, its top lawyer, said he believed that the City Council can amend the charter “just like ordinary legislation,” which Perales agreed with.

Other issues beyond those encompassed by the CFB’s recommendations also arose.

Government reform group Citizens Union remained neutral on increasing public funds disbursement to candidates, but gave suggestions for transparency measures if the commission decided to increase the disbursement. Rachel Bloom, Citizens Union’s director of public policy, called on the commission to prohibit public funds disbursed to candidates to be used to pay consultants that also lobby the city, subject candidate coordination with union members to campaign finance regulations, tighten Local Law 181, which regulates the nonprofits of elected officials, restrict the transfer of campaign funds running for one office to another office, and to transfer lobbying reporting and enforcement to the CFB.

When asked by Siegal if the CFB was interested in regulating lobbying, Loprest was ambivalent on whether the organization’s independence lent itself to being a watchdog on lobbying.

Meanwhile, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams advocated for eliminating money from politics entirely and moving to a 100 percent publicly funded system. Adams said that candidacies receiving public funding could be gauged by petition signatures, or by reaching a threshold through $1 donations that would end up in the public finance system. He also suggested that the members of the commission, none of whom have held elected office, were not fully equipped to know what raising money as a politician is like, and that they should hold a “mock election” to gain fuller experience.

“I think a good mock exercise is for everyone at CFB, everyone who’s making these decisions, to run a mock election,” Adams said. “Those who have never felt what what you go through to run an election can never really understand. I think to run a mock election, give them the task of calling people and giving them $500, if ever you want people to lose your number, try to raise that $500.”

Adams has already made his own appointee to the charter revision commission empaneled through City Council legislation, which will begin its business soon and put forth recommendations next year. Adams has chosen former City Council Member Sal Albanese, who has been a proponent for campaign finance reform, organizing much of his 2017 mayoral run around the “democracy vouchers” program that has been implemented in Seattle.

“Money is the enemy,” Adams said. “It is always going to be the enemy. We are always going to have a problem with corruption until we get money out of campaigns.”

The mayoral charter revision commission will meet twice more next week, on Tuesday and Thursday, to hear expert testimony on community boards and land use, then civic engagement and independent redistricting.

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Hears Expert Testimony on Campaign Finance Reform Fri, 15 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Campaign Finance Board to Propose Reforms at Charter Commission Hearing http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7735:campaign-finance-board-to-propose-reforms-at-charter-commission-hearing http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7735:campaign-finance-board-to-propose-reforms-at-charter-commission-hearing mayor cityhall march

(photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)


New York City’s modern campaign finance system is undoubtedly a model program -- it’s being emulated in other municipalities -- that has diversified and democratized the city’s quadrennial local elections since it was created 30 years ago. Among its strengths is that the public-matching program is consistently tweaked and updated with the times, and the Campaign Finance Board is taking the opportunity afforded by a mayoral charter revision commission to propose further reforms to the system.

CFB officials are set to present five proposals to the charter revision commission, empaneled in April by Mayor Bill de Blasio, on Thursday afternoon, at an issue forum at NYU focused on campaign finance reform, which was one of the mayor’s stated goals in creating the commission. The commission has been holding public hearings for the last few months and is now digging deeper into a few core subject areas including election administration, voter access and participation, land use, community boards, civic engagement, and independent redistricting.

The CFB’s proposals are meant to enhance its voluntary public matching funds system, which encourages candidates to seek small-dollar donations that are matched at a 6-to-1 ratio for contributions up to $175, or the first $175 of larger donations. The program aids those seeking public office without the help of wealthy donors or support from political party machinery, and gives everyday New Yorkers a greater voice by boosting the impact of their contributions.

Perhaps the CFB’s most significant proposal involves significantly lowering contribution limits for all offices. Currently, individual donors can give candidates for citywide office up to $5,100; candidates for borough president can receive up to $3,950, and City Council candidates can get $2,850 at maximum. The CFB proposes reducing those limits by more than half to $2,250, $1,750, and $1,250 respectively.   

There’s a clear rationale for these changes. In the 2017 election, the CFB noted, contributions to mayoral candidates larger than $2,250 accounted for only 5 percent of all contributions but 59 percent of the total funds raised by those candidates. Similarly, donations of $1,250 and more made up only 2 percent of contributions to City Council candidates but 32 percent of the money raised.

A few of the proposals are directly targeted at citywide positions -- mayor, comptroller and public advocate -- where large donors tend to play a greater role. The CFB suggests increasing the matching fund ratio for citywides from 6-to-1 to 8-to-1 and increasing the matchable donations from $175 to $250. In essence, candidates would be further incentivized to seek small-dollar donations, which would carry a bigger reward. For instance, a donation of $175 to a participating candidate would currently get them another $1,050 in public funds. The changed formula would mean that a $250 donation would net candidates an additional $2,000 in public funds.

Reforms along the lines of the CFB’s proposals have been advanced in the City Council but members have waited to act as the charter commission carries out its work. The CFB, an independently-operating body whose members are chosen by the mayor and the City Council speaker, releases a mandated post-election report every four years with a series of recommendations that typically leads to City Council legislation and at least some tweaks to the system that are passed into law. Such a report is expected by September, and is likely to include proposals similar to those being presented to the mayor’s charter revision commission. When de Blasio announced his charter revision commission and said he intended it to focus in part on campaign finance reform, some questioned why he wouldn’t allow the usual process to unfold.

The mayoral charter revision commission’s proposals will be announced in early September and placed on the ballot in the November general election, with city voters approving or rejecting them.

A second charter revision commission is being formed after legislation passed the City Council earlier this year. Its work will culminate with ballot proposals in 2019.

One bill currently at the City Council, proposed by Council Member Ben Kallos, would increase the cap on public campaign matching funds from the current 55 percent of the spending limit for a particular seat to 85 percent. The CFB is now proposing a more moderate increase to 65 percent of the spending limit, reasoning that it nonetheless boosts small donations while giving candidates the flexibility to raise and spend funds from private sources since public funds payments are usually doled out in the closing stretches of each election cycle.

Two other new CFB proposals would alter the thresholds for candidates to qualify for public funds. As it stands now, citywide candidates have to raise a minimum amount from a minimum number of donations. As an example, mayoral candidates have to raise at least $250,000 from at least 1,000 donors who gave a minimum of $10, while comptroller and public advocate candidates have to raise $125,000 from 500 donors giving at least $10. The CFB is proposing reducing these thresholds to $125,000 for mayor and $75,000 for the other citywide seats, while also pitching a new “geographic requirement” that each candidate receive at least 50 contributions from each of the five boroughs. They are also proposing lowering the minimum qualifying contribution to $5 for all elected positions.

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Campaign Finance Board to Propose Reforms at Charter Commission Hearing Wed, 13 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Passes Bill Mandating Public Broadcast of Citywide Debates http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7688:city-council-passes-bill-mandating-public-broadcast-of-citywide-debates http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7688:city-council-passes-bill-mandating-public-broadcast-of-citywide-debates Joe Borelli City Council

Council Member Borelli (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)


The general election debates in last year’s mayoral race largely lacked substance and order, as Mayor Bill de Blasio twice faced off against two challengers -- Republican Assembly Member Nicole Malliotakis and independent candidate Bo Dietl. Perhaps in part because de Blasio was not seen as vulnerable to defeat in an overwhelmingly Democratic city, the debates also lacked a wide audience. But there was another issue at play, for those debates and others mandated as part of the city’s campaign finance system: public accessibility to view them.

City Council Member Joe Borelli and his colleagues seek to expand access to televised city election debates -- which can be held for the three citywide positions in party primaries and general elections -- through a bill passed by the Council on Wednesday.

Borelli’s bill requires that all mandatory debates hosted by the New York City Campaign Finance Board, in partnership with numerous local news organizations, be publicly broadcast at no charge on a city-owned or operated television channel to reach the widest possible audience. This would be in addition to broadcast by any selected network as the CFB typically chooses a lead TV station for each debate.

The bill was prompted largely because some of the debates, including the first general election mayoral debate and the lone general election debates in the 2017 races for comptroller and public advocate, were broadcast on television on NY1 and accessible only to those with cable television packages that include the channel. (NY1 did choose to air its debates live for free on its website and social media, as did other debate sponsors, and archived footage is easily available on the Campaign Finance Board website.)

“This may not be priority one and we’re likely three years away from any city-wide debates, but the fact that we spend so much public money to increase voter turnout to then only allow a small percentage of city residents to see the debate seemed counter-productive,” Borelli said, in a statement after the passage of the bill. “I can’t believe this would have even been allowed in the first place and I’m glad I’m changing the rules.” 

He said that more than half of the city’s residents did not have access to certain debates because they either could not afford or refused to subscribe to Spectrum, NY1’s parent company. In the 2017 election cycle, the debates not televised by NY1 were broadcast on TV by CBS-2 New York, a network typically part of all basic television packages. This included the second of two general election mayoral debates.

A press release from Borelli’s office said the bill is expected to be signed by the mayor. Seth Stein, a mayoral spokesperson said in a statement, "We look forward to reviewing the final version of this bill that was passed by the Council. The Mayor supports measures to make our democratic process more open and accessible to New Yorkers."

The bill has general support from government reform groups. At an April 26 hearing of the Committee on Governmental Operations, Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany, said, “Generally speaking, we encourage civic participation in our democracy through the use of modern technology.”

Camarda also urged the committee to consider webcasting debates on one or several city government-run sites. “We think that that’s advantageous, not only because it’s less expensive, it allows for archiving at much lower costs, and it can be watched on smart phones which, more and more, is what people watch their content on these days,” Camarda said. Those proposals weren’t reflected in the final legislation.

In a phone interview Wednesday, Camarda said, “It can’t hurt to expand the TV channels that debates are on but we would prefer webcasting and more modern modes of delivery be mandated.”

“Access to information is essential to make elections fair for everyone,” said Assembly Member Malliotakis, in a statement supporting the bill’s passage. “The more widespread debate coverage is, the more prepared voters will be to make an informed decision of who they want to represent them in government.”

The CFB also came out in support of the bill. Executive Director Amy Loprest said in a statement to Gotham Gazette that the agency is “committed to getting voters the information they need to cast an informed ballot on Election Day.”

“These efforts include helping all New Yorkers view the official citywide debates to learn more about candidates seeking elected office,” she added. “Today’s passage of Int. No. 14-A, requiring these debates to be simulcast on a city-owned or operated television channel, will help ensure that as many New Yorkers as possible have live access to the debates.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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City Council Passes Bill Mandating Public Broadcast of Citywide Debates Wed, 23 May 2018 04:00:00 +0000
James Victory in Attorney General Race Would Trigger Citywide Special Election http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7681:james-victory-in-attorney-general-race-could-trigger-first-citywide-special-election http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7681:james-victory-in-attorney-general-race-could-trigger-first-citywide-special-election Tish James City Hall

Public Advocate Letitia James (photo: Mayor's Office)


Eric Schneiderman’s resignation has triggered what could be a domino effect in New York politics, potentially creating vacancies in local offices and perhaps leading to New York City’s first citywide special election.  

When Schneiderman stepped down from the post of attorney general, it kicked off a mad dash of people interested in becoming the next top legal officer of New York State. Even as the state Legislature moves through a process to choose an interim appointee, others have their eyes set on the fall election. New York City Public Advocate Letitia James quickly announced her candidacy and is the clear favorite for the Democratic nomination, though other potential candidates are weighing whether to enter the fray.

Additional candidates are also seeking or considering pursuing the nominations of other parties, including law professor Zephyr Teachout and John Cahill, the 2014 Republican nominee for attorney general and former chief of staff to Governor George Pataki. The Democratic nominee will likely be the favorite to win statewide in November given that no other party has won a statewide race since Pataki in 2002.

If James prevails in the September Democratic primary and beats a Republican and other opponents in November, she would likely be sworn in as attorney general on January 1, 2019 leaving her current office vacant. That would prompt a special election for the post of public advocate, the first of its kind in a citywide race in New York since the establishment of the city’s campaign finance program.

It’s easy to imagine that James could prevail with strong backing from the Democratic establishment -- including Governor Andrew Cuomo and state Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie from the Bronx -- as well as labor unions, which have already begun to announce their support for her. Democrats have a significant voter enrollment advantage in New York and this year is expected to be a strong year for Democrats across the board.

According to the city charter, three days after a public advocate vacancy, “The mayor is required to issue a proclamation calling a special election within 45 days,” said Jerry Goldfeder, an election lawyer and special counsel at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan. The election would be nonpartisan, open to any candidate who can create a new party line and gather enough signatures to appear on the ballot.

Just like for vacancies in City Council seats, the victor of the special election will not serve the remainder of the public advocate’s term. Another primary contest and general election would take place in the fall of 2019 for a candidate to hold the seat through 2021.

Such a special election could easily trigger a crowded field as current officeholders -- whether City Council members, borough presidents, or state legislators -- would not have to give up their seats to run. Most of the City Council and all five borough presidents will be term limited from running for reelection in 2021, leading many to already be eyeing their next move.

The timing of the race could also be tricky. The first Tuesday within 45 days would be February 19, just one day after President’s Day. Special elections tend not to be scheduled just after a holiday and in the past, elections have been pushed forward or pulled back by a week. In 2015, for instance, a special election for the 17th City Council district was moved forward to February 23, the week after President’s Day.

The special election would also be the first race to be held in the city since new contribution and spending limits went into effect for the 2021 election cycle.

In a public advocate special election, the contribution limit would be $2,550, half the regular $5,100 contribution limit for the position. Other thresholds remain the same, however. A public advocate candidate is allowed to spend up to $4.6 million in a special election. To qualify for the CFB’s public matching funds program -- which matches qualifying small dollar donations up to $175 at a 6-to-1 ratio -- a candidate would have to raise at minimum $125,000 with at least 500 contributors giving $10 or more. A candidate can receive a maximum of $2.5 million in public funds.

At a City Council budget hearing on Thursday, New York City Campaign Finance Board Executive Director Amy Loprest told Council members on the governmental operations committee that the agency had only budgeted about $1 million for public funds for potential special elections in the next fiscal year that begins July 1 of this year and runs through June 2019.

“Do you believe this is enough?” asked Council Member Fernando Cabrera, chair of the committee. “Let’s suppose we have a citywide race in the city and we were to add a couple of extra Council members who might decide to move on to other aspirations. Would a million dollars be enough, if we were in that situation?”

“We submitted our budget in March. The political landscape changes all the time so I’d have to go back and analyze whether a million dollars will be sufficient,” Loprest said. “The law does allow for emergency appropriations of public funds if the fund that was allocated was not enough.”

A CFB spokesperson said Friday that it’s unlikely any one candidate, let alone several, could raise enough funds in the six-week run up to the special election to qualify for the full matching fund outlay. In the 2017 public advocate campaign, the spokesperson pointed out, James raised $947,530 and received a $756,486 public funds payment. None of the other candidates met the threshold to qualify for public funds.

[Read: Letitia James Launches Campaign for Attorney General]

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been corrected to note that a City Council vacancy is filled through the same special election process as a public advocate vacancy. 

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James Victory in Attorney General Race Would Trigger Citywide Special Election Sat, 19 May 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Brooklynites Testify at Charter Revision Commission Hearing http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7662:brooklynites-testify-at-charter-revision-commission-hearing http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7662:brooklynites-testify-at-charter-revision-commission-hearing Mayor de Blasio charter revision

Mayor de Blasio at a hearing at City Hall (photo: Mayoral Photography Office)


Calls for campaign finance improvements, election reform, and changes to the structure and functions of community boards dominated the fourth borough hearing of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Charter Revision Commission, held Monday night at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Created by the mayor to review the charter, which outlines the city’s foundational governance, the commission is holding a slew of hearings across the city to solicit public input on changes that New Yorkers want to see in the powers and role of the municipal government. Those proposed changes will eventually be included as referenda on the November election ballot. On Monday, over the course of three-and-a-half hours, about two dozen people testified before the commission on concerns both broad and parochial.

With the mayor having formed the commission with particular goals in mind -- improving voter participation and reducing the influence of money in elections -- it wasn’t surprising that campaign finance reform was a large focus of the hearing. Government reform groups urged the commissioners to consider a slew of changes, some controversial, and to further strengthen the city’s campaign finance system, which is considered a national model.  

Among other things, Citizens Union, one of the groups, pushed for a top-two election system regardless of party, instant runoff voting, independent redistricting for City Council seats, and transferring oversight of lobbying disclosure from the City Clerk’s office to the Campaign Finance Board.

Another advocate, Jeremy Gruber, senior vice president of Open Primaries, as his organization’s name suggests, called on the commission to propose allowing all registered voters to cast a ballot in primary elections, which currently are limited to voters registered with a political party and exclude nearly a million independent voters. “Every New York City voter benefits from a healthier, more inclusive political system that encourages competition,” Gruber said, noting the chaos that accompanied the 2016 presidential primary in the state when hundreds of thousands of independent voters were incensed by being shut out of the Democratic primary between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

Questions were raised about a few of those recommendations. Commissioner Larian Angelo expressed concern that a top-two election system, in which the top two vote-getters in a primary advance to the general election, might shut out Republicans in a Democrat-heavy city. And nonpartisan open primaries, Commission Chair Cesar Perales pointed out, had been put before the voters in a referendum years ago and was soundly rejected. “I’m playing the devil’s advocate here,” he conceded.

Gruber, though, insisted that the concept was “incredibly relevant” in the current political climate, with voters increasingly alienated from political parties and seeking to exercise their voting rights as independents.

Other ideas that found purchase among the audience and the commissioners were proposals to institutionalize participatory budgeting. Certain City Council members employ the program in their districts, allowing constituents to vote on how to direct $1 million or more in funding towards various programs and initiatives. Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, said the program could be expanded citywide. She also said members of the Campaign Finance Board should no longer be solely appointed by the mayor, to increase ethics oversight of the agency.

Lerner, and others, also pushed for a move towards full public financing of elections, by first increasing the amount of funds that the CFB provides to candidates under it’s public matching funds system, which incentivizes small-dollar donations up to $175 by matching them at a 6-to-1 ratio. Those who testified included individuals who have unsuccessfully run for City Council in the past, and who said that the current system continues to favor candidates with access to wealthy donors and those with the resources to navigate the CFB’s at-times onerous regulations.

“Everyone deserves a fair and equal voice and now giving that opportunity of raising someone’s voice who is less fortunate can help ensure that their opinions and needs do not fade off into night behind those who can afford to raise their own,” said RJ DeMello, a community activist.

Another popular proposal, put forward by Brooklyn Council Member Brad Lander and supported by many of those who testified, involves creating a New York City Office of Civic Engagement, to encourage voter participation and local involvement in civic affairs. Amina Fofana, a member of Integrate NYC, a youth-led organization working towards school integration, said Lander’s civic engagement office was necessary so “youth can be able to voice their opinions and have a part in the decisions that are being made.”

Lander, who has introduced legislation to create the office, also spoke at Monday’s hearing. A nonpartisan, independent citywide Office of Civic Engagement could “truly empower people to engage in shaping their communities, which is really what democracy is supposed to be about,” he said. However, in his State of the City speech in February when he announced plans for his charter revision commission, de Blasio also said he was going to name a Chief Democracy Officer in the mayor’s office, though the scope of that position does not appear as wide-ranging as the office Lander is pushing for.

Several local residents at Monday’s hearing had narrower but substantive concerns about the functioning of community boards, the most localized iteration of municipal government. Some suggested that community board members should be elected rather than appointed, with term limits, and that borough presidents should be removed from the appointment process. “Community boards are their own political entity. Without term limits, their ability to represent constituents goes down,” said one resident and community organizer, Juan Restrepo.

Other suggestions included proportional representation from the population of the local district, a standard regulating structure for boards citywide, and a stronger role in local land use decisions.

Paula Segal, a senior staff attorney in the Equitable Neighborhoods practice at the Community Development Project, advocated for more equitable land use policies, noting that publicly owned land is leased out or sold without being subject to the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). She pushed for improvements to ULURP and increased transparency in land use applications, and reforms to the tax lien process for charities and nonprofits. Segal’s boldest proposal was the “enshrinement of a right to housing” for the homeless, as opposed to the state law which provides for a right to shelter and creates what Segal called a “shelter industrial complex.”

There were also some speakers on tangential matters, who urged changes in voter registration and voting laws, which fall under the purview of the state Legislature and cannot be affected by revisions of the city charter. At least two people, including Republican congressional candidate Lutchi Gayot, said that Commissioner Una Clarke should recuse herself from the panel because her daughter, Congressional Rep. Yvette Clarke, is running for reelection and that posed a conflict of interest. Commission members had to repeatedly remind the audience that the commission’s work has no bearing on federal election regulations or practices. “[N]obody ever considered me a rubber stamp for anything,” Clarke retorted to one resident, noting that she and the other members of the commission are independent volunteers.

Yet others seemed slighted by how the commission was carrying out its work. Matt Fairley, who said he is a resident of Lander’s district, critiqued the commission for allowing representatives of established organizations to testify first, which “only increases the sense of alienation that voters in this city feel that people who are connected will be given primacy of place,” he said.

Fairley proposed a sweeping change in city government, insisting that New York City needs to increase the number of elected officials from the 64 that currently hold office across different levels. The idea found support from others as well, including Dr. John Flateau, a professor at Medgar Evers College who also serves as the Democratic Board of Elections commissioner from Brooklyn.

Flateau suggested that the City Council should have 59 seats, up from 51, to match the number of community boards. He had 21 proposals in total for the commission, though he was afforded only enough time to verbally advance a few, including granting legal permanent residents the right to vote in municipal elections, reviewing the composition of various city boards and commissions, and advice and consent powers for the City Council on mayoral appointments.  

The Commission will hold its next hearing in Manhattan on Wednesday. An initial draft list of recommendations from the commission is expected in July.

***
by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Brooklynites Testify at Charter Revision Commission Hearing Tue, 08 May 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Council Member Proposes Campaign Finance Changes http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7541:council-member-to-propose-campaign-finance-changes http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7541:council-member-to-propose-campaign-finance-changes cm keith powers cc

Council Member Keith Powers (photo: William Alatriste)


City Council Member Keith Powers, a former lobbyist who ran for election on a platform that included a 22-point electoral and government reform agenda, has introduced a package of legislation to make small but significant changes to the city’s campaign finance program.

Powers, a Manhattan Democrat, is proposing five bills, introduced at the full meeting of the City Council on Wednesday, that will change campaign finance thresholds and reporting requirements, with the goal of making running for elected office easier for first-time candidates and those with little access to wealthy donors.

The city’s campaign finance program is “already a gold standard,” Powers said, in a recent phone interview, but can be even more effective with certain tweaks. The package of bills, he said, were based on his personal experience with the New York City Campaign Finance Board’s public matching funds program -- which incentivizes small-dollar donations from city residents up to $175 by matching them at a 6-to-1 ratio -- and also a recent Council hearing where the CFB testified before the Committee on Governmental Operations, of which Powers is a member.

One of his bills would increase the small-dollar matchable amount from $175 to $250, giving smaller campaigns a boost in fundraising. Any candidate who wants to receive public matching funds must hit two thresholds -- a minimum number of contributions of at least $10 and a minimum amount. For instance, City Council candidates who participate in the program must raise at least 75 contributions from donors within their district and raise a minimum of $5,000. The thresholds are far greater for borough-wide and city-wide races.

A second bill would also reduce the lowest qualifying contribution from $10 to $5. “It makes it easier for candidates to hit the matching threshold,” Powers said.

The third bill in the package would establish a pilot program to provide full matching funds for special elections, where candidates must raise funds in a much shorter period of time. Currently, the CFB's program only provides matching funds up to 55 percent of the spending limit for a particular race. The bill would increase the match to 85 percent, effectively allowing candidates to raise as much as they are allowed to spend.  

Finally, Powers also hopes to ease the burden of complying with the city’s campaign finance law for candidates that tend to run campaigns with limited funds. The CFB requires that all campaigns submit detailed disclosure reports of the money they raise and spend during an election season, a requirement that has at times been criticized as overly onerous for candidates who do not have experience with the program or the help of high-priced professional consultants to help them comply. Candidates who fail to file disclosures, or improperly file them, can incur costly fines sometimes amounting to thousands of dollars from the CFB after an election.

However, “small campaigns” that do not surpass $1,000 in fundraising and expenditure do not have to file these reports under the campaign finance law. The bill Powers is proposing would raise that amount to $3,000, lifting the reporting requirements on dozens of candidates. A companion resolution would also call on the state to do the same. 

The intent of Powers’ proposals overlaps with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s February announcement that he will convene a Charter Revision Commission to explore, among other things, limiting the influence of moneyed interests in city elections and reducing contribution limits. To some, a commission that would look at campaign finance seemed duplicative and Powers is among those who are skeptical about the need for a commission to essentially do the City Council’s job. “We can legislate these issues without a Charter Revision Commission,” Powers said, noting that he also considered legislation to reduce contribution limits, but only for special elections. There has been some talk about reducing the maximum individual contributions allowed, which just recently rose slightly to $5,100 for city-wide candidates and $2,850 for City Council candidates, which de Blasio’s commission may explore.

Powers did praise the mayor for propelling a much-needed debate, and said it was an opportunity to move ahead with more drastic changes to the public financing system. One change, he said, could involve increasing the cap on matching funds available to candidates from 55 percent of the spending limit for their seat to 85 percent. That proposal is currently before the Council in legislation from Council Member Ben Kallos, the former chair of the governmental operations committee.

“I think it’s a totally fine idea to have a Charter Revision Commission and doing contribution limits as one of the topics totally makes sense,” Powers said. But, he added, “I want to have a Commission that includes a conversation about the larger structure of city government...At a moment when we have a need for more representation across the board, especially for women in the City Council, I think it’s important that we look to remove any barriers to running for elected office.”

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, in partnership with Public Advocate Letitia James and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, is pushing ahead with a separate Charter Revision Commission, with a broader initial mandate. A bill to create that commission is expected to pass the Council this week. 

[Read: With Tweaks, City Council Charter Revision Commission Bill Expected to Pass]

Powers also promised that he has another package of bills he will introduce down the line that relates to contribution limits, matching funds, and contributions from individuals and entities doing business with the city. This may coincide with the typical process by which the Campaign Finance Board issues its post-election report, due in August, with recommendations for changes to the campaign finance system, usually the subject of a government operations committee hearing and subsequent legislation.

And Powers is also introducing a connected bill that would affect the city’s doing business database of companies and individuals that work for or with the city. Entities on the Doing Business Database are significantly limited in the amount of money they contribute to electoral candidates and their donations are not matchable under the public funds program. For mayoral candidates, the doing business contribution limit is $400, and for City Council candidates it’s $250.

Powers’ bill would directly address real estate developers, who have been some of the largest donors in recent elections and have spent millions to support candidates from city-wides down to the boroughs and Council districts. The bill would mandate that developers formally seeking a city contract are added to the doing-business list so that their contributions are reigned in.

Developers who submit land use applications for city-proposed developments would be entered in the doing business database at an earlier stage in the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). Currently, developers are only included in the database once their application is certified. Powers’ bill would require that they are listed once they apply to start the certification process, moving the timeline of their inclusion in the database up by a few months.

“Sometimes, years before the ULURP, developers can be talking with the administration,” he said, highlighting the necessity of the bill.

***
by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Council Member Proposes Campaign Finance Changes Mon, 09 Apr 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Campaign Finance Board Begins Formal Review of 2017 Election Cycle http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7450:campaign-finance-board-begins-review-of-2017-election-cycle http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7450:campaign-finance-board-begins-review-of-2017-election-cycle Mayor de Blasio 2017 election voting

(photo: Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette)


The New York Campaign Finance Board (CFB) held a hearing Monday morning to field testimony on the 2017 New York City election cycle from candidates, operatives, and advocates. The hearing, part of a quadrennial post-election report that must be submitted before September 1 the year after the election, came on the heels of final campaign finance filing of the 2017 cycle. The CFB post-election process will lead to a report that then informs legislation typically introduced by City Council members to tweak the city’s heralded public-matching system that encourages small-dollar fundraising.

Led by CFB chair Frederick Schaffer, Monday morning’s meeting was attended by roughly 35 people and lasted just under two hours. It featured discussion on increasing voter participation, ins and outs of campaign financing, and CFB protocols in working with candidates. As is typical, several candidates who were unsuccessful in the recently completed elections expressed frustration with the process, though the vast majority of candidates did not testify at the hearing. City Council Member Ben Kallos was the lone elected official to testify -- Kallos has been a campaign finance and government reform advocate prior to joining the Council, and for the last four-year cycle chaired the Council committee with oversight of the CFB.

The board took stock of its initiatives during the last cycle -- which featured elections for citywide, borough-wide, and City Council seats -- including the matching funds program, but also the candidate debates that it sponsored, and its other voter education and outreach efforts.

According to the CFB’s data, during the 2017 cycle 73% of candidates received money from the program; the CFB distributed funds totaling $17,694,046 to 105 different people running for office. This past cycle, 46% of spending came via public funds. And in 25 Council races, matching funds comprised of over half of campaign spending.

The first and only of its kind, the hearing is part of a process that may prove pivotal in the next election cycle, ahead of what will be a far more contentious and busy 2021 elections. After the CFB released its report on the 2013 elections in 2014, the City Council subsequently incorporated many of the proposals in about a dozen pieces of legislation that passed ahead of these past elections, along with about another ten campaign finance-related bills brought forth by Council members to modify the system and related processes to their liking.

According to the CFB, of 14 statutory changes the board recommended in 2014, 10 became law, including measures to make determinations about public matching funds earlier in the cycle, clarify eligibilty for debates in the citywide races, and ban anonymous campaign communications. Those that were not enacted into law include instant runoff voting.

On Monday, advocates and others testifying offered several changes they would like to see ahead of the 2021 election. Further encouraging candidates to raise funds via small-dollar donations topped the list of priorities.

Kallos made the case for a bill he sponsored last term and will soon re-introduce this term, which he said would additionally incentivize candidates to pursue small-dollar donations by increasing the threshold for public matching dollars that candidates can earn.  While he called New York City’s “the model public finance system in the country,” he said it can also be improved upon.

Under current campaign finance law, Kallos explained, the CFB matches the first $175 of eligible donations at a six-to-one ratio. Kallos wants to raise the ceiling for matching funds so that candidates can run for office by raising all donations of $175 or less if they so choose, and still be able to hit the spending cap. If his policy in enacted, Kallos said candidates would be able to finance campaigns on mostly small donations. For example, he said, someone would be able to run for mayor collecting 5,689 contributions of $175, raising about $1 million, to be matched six-to-one, garnering a total of $7 million and able “to run a competitive race.”

“The ability to run a 100 percent grassroots campaign, where a candidate is beholden to no one except the voters, will revolutionize city politics and restore confidence in government [that] has been steadily eroding for decades,” he said.

“If candidates pursue a small-dollars, grassroots campaign, we will have elected officials who earned their positions based on their knowledge of the issues,” he said, rather than candidates’ “ability to convince millionaires and billionaires to open their wallets.”  

Asked what the advantage of his proposal is over lowering the contribution limit with the aim of encouraging low-dollar donations, Kallos responded that candidates would still opt not to seek small donations and prioritize larger donors if the contribution limit was reduced. “Whatever the contribution limit is, is what elected officials will seek. Lowering that threshold just makes it a little bit cheaper for those writing those maximum checks under the law,” Kallos said.

Michael Malbin, campaign finance expert and politics professor at the University of Albany, agreed with the thinking behind Kallos’ bill. “If you raise your money from max donors...you’re not going into the neighborhoods to get $50 contributions,” Malbin said during his testimony. “And the goal of this is, or ought to be, to increase participation by a diverse set of people who fully represent the city.”

Caitlin Scherer, of Represent.US, voiced support for Kallos’ legislation. And more broadly, Scherer made the case for increasing the amount of public spending on elections. “Doing so would involve more citizens in the political process and relieve candidates of the pressure to solicit donations from those with the deepest pockets,” she said during testimony.

Reinvent Albany senior policy consultant Alex Camarda also expressed support for Kallos’ legislation. The bill was co-sponsored last term by Council members Brad Lander and Fernando Cabrera, along with 29 others, for a total of 32 sponsors in the 51-seat body, and was discussed at a hearing last April, but did not see a committee vote.

Rachel Bloom, director of public policy at Citizens Union, another government reform group, offered other suggestions on campaign finance reform during her testimony. Before the 2021 elections, Bloom said Citizens Union wants to see “an increase in spending caps to counteract increases in independent expenditures, banning the use of public funds for campaign consulting services from firms that also lobby; and a further reduction in public funds for candidates facing minimal opposition and the enactment of ‘war chest’ restrictions.’”

Bloom also assessed the voter turnout in the 2017 elections, which was exceedingly low. She pointed toward the lack of competitiveness in many elections across the five boroughs, with incumbents receiving 74% of the vote and only about 10 of more than 50 municipal seats open in 2017 as the factors driving low voter participation. The elections last year, she said, were “notably uncompetitive.” Bloom added that “open” city council races, races without incumbents seeking office, were 12% more likely to participate in the matching funds program.

Matt McDermott, director at Whitman Insight Strategies, mentioned the difficulty of getting younger voters to the polls. “These voters aren’t apathetic. They actually have issues they care about and they actually care about those passionately,” McDermott said. “The difficulty is in correlating those care-abouts to voting in local elections.”

“A lot of younger people just don’t know there’s a primary,” said Caileigh Scott of McEvoy & Associates. “It is partially a communication breakdown.”

Malbin said that though getting millennials to vote it a difficult task, it is also crucial.  “The research show that once you get somebody to vote, it’s really a habit. The first couple are the hard ones,” said Malbin.

While the majority of testimony was focused on specific recommended changes to the CFB system, some who testified -- mainly those who either worked on unsuccessful campaigns or had run themselves -- had harsh words for the CFB.

Angela Disto, who served as treasurer for Liam McCabe’s unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination in City Council District 43, complained that some of the CFB’s verification process of donations was “petty” and “unnecessary.”

“I’m a volunteer, as [are] the majority of campaign treasurers. Who needs it?” she said. “Why does the board make this mostly volunteer role so overwhelming?”

Anthony Rivers, who ran unsuccessfully in City Council District 27, does not think the CFB-led training sessions adequately prepared him for the campaign.

“I feel the training does not put enough emphasis on campaign contribution cards and their importance,” he said. “It should be heavily stressed on the importance of not having a single blemish on the contributions card. Our campaign suffered many setbacks due to minor blemishes on the individual cards.”

For his part, Cary Goodman, who ran in Council District 6, had a different experience with the CFB. “I am here as a poster boy for the Campaign Finance Board,” he said. “There is absolutely no way I would have been able to conduct a campaign against the incumbent -- it was not successful, I got rocked -- but I would not have have [had] the opportunity to do what I did without the Campaign Finance Board.”

The CFB will now proceed with months of internal work to complete its post-election report before September 1. The next filing for the 2017 campaign cycle and first filing for the 2021 cycle is July 15.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Campaign Finance Board Begins Formal Review of 2017 Election Cycle Tue, 30 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Online Voter Registration Debate Continues, with Court Challenge Possible http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7371:online-voter-registration-debate-continues-with-court-challenge-possible http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7371:online-voter-registration-debate-continues-with-court-challenge-possible 36995856256 af91cc332f z

Gov. Cuomo voting (photo via The Governor's Office)


Last month, the New York City Council passed a bill that provides for online voter registration for city residents without requiring DMV-issued identification. With guidance from Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office allowing local jurisdictions to pass online registration measures, the bill holds up under state law. But state elections officials can’t agree on the validity of the bill, and city Board of Elections officials have yet to make a decision, portending that the matter may have to eventually be decided in court.

The uncertainty is unfolding as Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to soon sign into law the city bill, Intro. 508, the lead sponsor of which was City Council Member Ben Kallos. The question at hand is whether the city and state Boards of Elections will accept online signatures as valid in registering to vote. As of November 1, per state BOE numbers, there are more than five million registered voters in New York City, but an estimated 700,000-plus eligible voters who are not registered, with more turning 18 years of age each year.

Currently, the only agency authorized to accept online registration forms is the Department of Motor Vehicles, but only for people who already have DMV identification. The city bill would allow the New York City Campaign Finance Board to perform that role as well and would allow voters to submit electronic signatures matching their “wet” ink signature on paper. It would ease the process of registration for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, many from low-income communities of color who may lack DMV identification since they depend on public transportation.

Following the bill’s passage, the New York City Board of Elections sought guidance from its parent body, the State BOE. But the Democratic and Republican state BOE commissioners reached a split verdict. In separate memoranda sent to the city Board earlier this week, the Democrats approved of the bill while the Republican commissioners questioned its validity.

In a memorandum to the city BOE dated December 11, Todd Valentine, the Republican co-executive director of the state BOE, argued that the Council’s bill “would contravene New York State Constitution, state statutes and the rulings by the New York State Court of Appeals.”

He cited a 1985 decision in Clark v Cuomo by the New York State Court of Appeals, which effectively prohibits any state or city agency that has not been specifically authorized under state law to distribute and collect voter registration forms. He also argued against acceptance of electronic signatures, insisting that they do not meet the standards for an affidavit under the Electronic Signatures and Records Act, though he did say the ESRA’s application is voluntary for agencies. (A voter registration form effectively functions as an affidavit and registrants can be held criminally liable for falsifying their information.)

Valentine particularly noted that authorizing the city’s municipal identification program, IDNYC, as a signature repository “raises numerous issue in its own account.” “Specific research would need to be done to ensure that this program and any other so referenced, actually has strict safeguards and identification requirements to ensure that those applying for identification are, in fact, the individuals themselves,” he wrote.

The state BOE Democratic co-executive director, Robert Brehm, wrote to the city BOE one day after Valentine. He included a memorandum prepared by co-counsel Brian Quail which read, in part, that the legislation “is consistent with state law, and the voter registration forms produced under its provisions should be processed in the normal course by boards of elections.”

The memo pointed to A.G. Schneiderman’s informal opinion issued to Suffolk County officials in April last year when they were considering implementing a similar system locally. “Indeed, such electronically-facilitated voter registration is, in our opinion, consistent with the expressed legislative policy of ‘encourag[ing] the broadest possible voter participation in elections,’” Schneiderman wrote at the time.

Quail cited the opinion heavily in his memorandum. “Int. 508-A is little more than the cyber equivalent of requiring an agency of the government to provide pen and paper to persons wishing to complete a voter registration form. The legislation is crafted to comport with the parameters thoughtfully outlined in the Attorney General’s Opinion on the subject.”

The bill provides “sufficient authority” to the Campaign Finance Board, he continued, to implement the law in a way to avoid conflicting with election law, including choosing how signatures can be submitted. “As caselaw evinces, the law defining signature has never been rigid, and Int. 508-A is precisely the type of practical extension of the law of signatures to new realities that changing modes of writing require,” he wrote.

On the sidelines of a City Council oversight hearing on Wednesday, Douglas Kellner, Democratic co-chair of the state BOE, told Gotham Gazette that Schneiderman’s opinion “doesn’t seem to affect the Republicans.”

“On that particular issue, the state Board of Elections really has no role, and ultimately the courts will have to decide,” he predicted. “Someone will register through that system and if the registration is not processed, that person could bring a lawsuit or if the registration is processed, someone who wants to challenge it could bring a lawsuit.”

Kellner said the city BOE could decide to accept or reject electronically submitted signatures. The city BOE, as with its state counterpart, is a bipartisan body with ten commissioners, a Democrat and a Republican from each of the five boroughs, nominated through the party establishments. However, if they deadlock on processing such a registration form, under state law it would automatically be accepted.

A frustrated Kellner criticized his Republican colleagues for rejecting such a common sense measure and more broadly for their obstructionist tactics. “So often, people have said there’s not a Republican or Democratic way to pick up the garbage and that election administration is similarly a nonpartisan function,” he said. “But it’s unfortunate that increasingly, there is a partisan divide over election administration. That more and more the Republican Party is imposing obstructions to allowing people to exercise their franchise and in an efficient manner.”  

He did say New York Republicans have been more “moderate” and have not pushed the types of voter suppression measures used in many states. “But on the other hand, it’s very disappointing that the New York Republicans have been resisting, so persistently, improvements in election administration that would make it easier for people to register to vote, easier for people to vote.”

The New York City BOE executive director, Michael Ryan, told Gotham Gazette at the same Wednesday hearing that the city commissioners had yet to make a decision. “My expectation is that the commissioners will independently review those documents and give the executive management team of the BOE guidance on the direction that we’re going to go in,” he said. “Until such time as that information has been digested and discussed among the commissioners, we have no public opinion one way or the other.”

***
by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Online Voter Registration Debate Continues, with Court Challenge Possible Thu, 14 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Council Speaker Candidates Give Generously to Colleagues http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7343:council-speaker-candidates-give-generously-to-colleagues http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7343:council-speaker-candidates-give-generously-to-colleagues johnson moya crowley c2

Corey Johnson, Francisco Moya, Joe Crowley (photo via @CoreyinNYC)


The eight City Council members, all Democrats, who are competing to lead the 51-member legislative body as speaker for the next four years must convince numerous constituencies of their viability, including some combination of county party leaders, labor unions, the mayor, and other influential politicos. But, when the new Council class convenes in January, the vote will come down to the 51 Council members, and they are not without agency. The speaker candidates, all men, have for months been seeking to curry favor with their colleagues, employing a variety of methods. One such tactic is to donate campaign funds to current and incoming members of the City Council.

All eight candidates -- Council Members Corey Johnson, Mark Levine, Ydanis Rodriguez, Robert Cornegy Jr., Ritchie Torres, Donovan Richards, Jumaane Williams, and Jimmy Van Bramer -- have made large political contributions from their reelection campaigns, according to an analysis of campaign finance filings by the New York City Campaign Finance Board at Gotham Gazette’s request, though the amounts to vary widely.

Numbers reflect disclosures filed through November 7, the day of general election and the most recent filing deadline. The next deadline is Monday, December 4.

The speaker candidates used money from their campaign accounts to spend on a variety of political causes, but most of their political giving went to other members running for reelection or Council candidates running to replace term-limited members.

Council Member Johnson’s lobbying largesse far outpaces the rest of the members, with $126,300 in political contributions, of which $84,875 went to other current or incoming members. Johnson, who has been aggressively campaigning for the Council’s top spot long before others jumped into the fray, also gave to local Democratic clubs and Democratic county organizations. He made the maximum allowable contribution of $2,750 to 26 candidates (including Council Member Elizabeth Crowley, who was unsuccessful in her reelection bid).

Levine, who along with Johnson and Cornegy is seen as a frontrunner in the race, has been second with $84,185 in political contributions, including $69,375 to his colleagues.

Most of the recipients of campaign cash from the speaker candidates has overlapped.

In third place is Rodriguez, whose political contributions to colleagues were $52,750, out of a total $57,761 spent from his campaign account on political donations.

The rest of the members spent far less to build support and help colleagues. Torres only gave $35,000 out of $59,117 in political contributions. Richards contributed $31,500 out of $37,465. Cornegy’s donations were only $27,500, Van Bramer’s were $24,675 and Williams gave just $13,000.

In total, there were 42 Council candidates from across the city who received a political contribution from another candidate, including both sitting Council members and those running for open seats. Among the 42 were a few who were unsuccessful as well as 11 new incoming members of the City Council.

The biggest beneficiary of the political giving was Adrienne Adams, a Democrat who was elected to the District 28 seat in Queens, which was empty following the expulsion of Council Member Ruben Wills after his conviction on corruption charges. Adams received $26,750 from Council colleagues, of which $18,000 was from seven speaker candidates. Cornegy was the only one who did not donate to her. Adams could not be reached for comment. In her run she had the backing of the Queens Democratic Party machine, which is seen as the most influential county party in the speaker race, with Rep. Joe Crowley at its head.

Justin Brannan, another Democrat who won the District 43 seat in Bay Ridge, collectively received $12,250 from five speaker candidates. “Having been a staffer in the Council and a Democratic organizer for many years, throughout my primary and general elections, I was grateful to have the support of many of the members I now look forward to calling colleagues and one of which we will elect as our leader,” Brannan said in a statement. “Personally, I'm looking for a speaker who will empower the members and consider the many diverse voices that make up the body.” He did not say who he would vote for.

As Brannan indicated, it’s not unusual for Council Members to bolster Council staffers’ bids for City Council. This was the case for Carlina Rivera, the former legislative director to outgoing Council Member Rosie Mendez. Rivera won Mendez’s Council District 2 seat in Manhattan. In a statement, Rivera said she was “thankful” for the support from Council members, who gave her $14,483 in total. All but $150 came from speaker candidates, but Rivera insisted that would not affect her vote. She declined to indicate which speaker candidate she may be leaning towards. “My decision on the next Speaker will be made like any other -- with careful consideration of each candidate’s record and policies,” she said. “It won’t be easy given the strength of each candidate, but I look forward to casting my vote based on these merits.”

Even as the speaker candidates’ political giving is tallied, some have helped raise money for their colleagues without raising it directly or bundling it as an intermediary. Some also raised money for or donated to Mayor de Blasio’s reelection bid, even as they attempt to sell their colleagues and others on promises of standing up to the mayor as the next speaker. Speaker candidates, to varying degrees, also went to campaign with members and candidates in their districts. Johnson and Levine were the most active in this respect, too, helping candidates to collect ballot petition signatures, knock on doors, and greet voters.

In Midtown Manhattan’s District 4, Keith Powers was elected to the seat being vacated by term-limited Council Member Dan Garodnick. Powers received the maximum $2,750 contribution from five speaker candidates. “I’ve known all the candidates for more than a few years,” said the former lobbyist who ran on a good government platform, in a phone interview, “and I’ve worked with them and I think they know I’ll be a good addition to the City Council. I think that’s why they supported me.”

The donations are not considerations in the race for speaker, Powers said, insisting he does not have a preferred candidate yet. “I think for everybody, it’s about the person’s ability to lead the Council, to keep the Council independent of the mayor,” he said. “I think [Council members] choose a speaker based on what’s best for their district and the issues they work on, and someone who shares their values.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Council Speaker Candidates Give Generously to Colleagues Thu, 30 Nov 2017 05:00:00 +0000
‘Democracy Vouchers’ May Come to New York City http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7322:democracy-vouchers-may-come-to-new-york-city http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7322:democracy-vouchers-may-come-to-new-york-city Ben Kallos campaign finance reform

City Council Member Ben Kallos (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


As he ran for mayor this year, former City Council Member Sal Albanese typically didn’t go more than five minutes without mentioning his call to bring additional campaign finance reform to New York City. Despite the fact that the city already has a heralded public-matching system that encourages small donation fundraising, Albanese pointed to the “democracy voucher” program instituted in Seattle, which is even more radical in its efforts to lower individual donation limits, encourage more voters to engage in politics, and push candidates to pay more attention to residents of all financial means.

The Seattle program, passed by voters in 2015 as part of a larger “honest elections” initiative, not only mandates exceedingly low ceilings for individual donations to candidates and for candidate expenditures, it provides eligible residents with four $25 vouchers that they can donate to participating candidates of their choosing. Using public money garnered from a property tax, it encourages more people to participate by giving them the means to donate to candidates and pushes candidates to reach out more broadly to the electorate. Research has shown that people who donate to campaigns vote in very high numbers.

While Albanese fell short in his bid to unseat Mayor Bill de Blasio, the City Council’s resident campaign finance reformer is planning to explore a democracy voucher program in New York City. City Council Member Ben Kallos told Gotham Gazette that he has submitted a request to the Council’s bill-drafting unit for democracy voucher legislation, likely to be introduced next year, after a new class of Council members is seated and a new speaker selected in January.

"I'm exploring anything and everything a jurisdiction in the country or on the planet is using to increase participation," Kallos told Gotham Gazette on Monday.

"The recent court decision upholding democracy vouchers shows a promising option for the city as we investigate ways for candidates to come from a community with community support without having to rely on big dollars from special interests," Kallos added, referring to a challenge to the Seattle system that was dismissed earlier this month.

Putting in a request for legislation is the first step of many whereby a bill can become law, and many bills never get through the City Council to the mayor’s desk. But, Kallos intends to start a serious discussion about whether the city should take a more drastic step toward campaign finance reform. Next year will also see a report from the city’s Campaign Finance Board about its program, as is mandated by law in the year following each city election. The board will make recommendations for ways in which the city can tweak the program, but democracy vouchers are unlikely to be part of its recommendations.

As for drawbacks to a democracy voucher program, one is that there is very limited data on its effectiveness since the Seattle program just got going. Others include the potential cost in public dollars, which could exceed the money the city currently puts toward its program -- the CFB paid out “$17,694,046 to 103 qualifying candidates for the 2017 election cycle,” according to a recent press release -- and whether an accompanying reduction in maximum individual contributions would push more money into independent expenditures.

Before introducing democracy voucher legislation or the CFB post-election report, however, Kallos is looking to see one of his currently-pending campaign finance reform bills passed in the waning days of this legislative session. Co-sponsored by 29 members in the 51-seat Council, the Kallos bill would increase the public matching threshold for how much candidates can receive relative to the spending limit in their races (there are lower thresholds for City Council races than borough-wide and city-wide races).

The bill had a hearing in April and Kallos said he is pushing to see it passed this term. The Manhattan Democrat saw his online voter registration bill passed on Tuesday by the governmental operations committee he chairs. The full Council is expected to pass it on Thursday and de Blasio has indicated he will sign it into law.

The de Blasio administration has indicated support for Kallos’ bill to increase the public matching threshold, which would allow candidates to run their campaigns based more on smaller, matchable donations (eligible donations up to $175 are matched six-to-one, to a certain percentage of the spending threshold, which Kallos’ bill would increase).

A de Blasio spokesperson also expressed some vague support for exploring the ideas of democracy vouchers and lowering contribution limits, when asked by Gotham Gazette. “The Mayor supports moving towards full public financing of elections and reversing Citizens United,” said spokesperson Seth Stein, in a statement. “We are reviewing other proposals and City Council legislation that will help us end the influence of money in our elections.”

Under the Seattle system, the maximum contribution allowed by each individual to a candidate participating in the democracy voucher program is $250 plus $100 in vouchers. For candidates not participating in the program, the maximum individual contribution is $500. These numbers are far lower than those currently allowed in New York City, where, for example, the maximum individual donation to a mayoral candidate is $4,950.

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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‘Democracy Vouchers’ May Come to New York City Tue, 14 Nov 2017 05:00:00 +0000