Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

The one issue that candidates for public office consider more important than any other is the one they are least eager to talk about – the process of getting elected to office.

It is the issue that the press has focused on in the 2005 mayoral race. The first question in the first official debate among the Democratic candidates started this way: “Anyone who has followed the primary race so far may think that the defining moments have been the fiascos. Speaker Miller took heat over the million-and-a-half dollars in recent public mailings; Congressman Weiner faces questions over use of party resources; Mrs. Fields had problems with flyers and misplaced e-mails; and you, Mr. Ferrer, took a lot of heat for statements on the Diallo case....” On the Republican side, the focus has been on Bloomberg’s billions.

However trivial some of these may seem, there are also substantive issues about elections that will last far beyond this particular campaign season. In the next several years, elected officials will have to weigh in on major changes both in the way candidates run and voters vote.

New Voting Machines – Changing The Way New Yorkers Vote

After years of legislative gridlock, on the penultimate day of the 2005 session, the New York State legislature finally agreed on legislation to implement the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA). As part of this measure, the city will be purchasing brand new voting machines, possibly as early as 2006, and finally ridding itself of the old lever systems which we’ve all come to know, if not love.

It is now up to the city government to select the machines that voters will use and fund a portion of the cost. The federal government allocation of $3,192 per precinct will not cover the actual cost of replacing all lever machines, and of training a slew of new poll workers to teach voters how to use these machines. While much of the heavy lifting on this will fall to the long-under-funded Board of Elections, the mayor and City Council will have to allocate the funds in the budget to make sure that the transition runs smoothly.

Campaign Financing – Reducing the Role of Money in Politics

A key ingredient in being elected to public office is raising funds to be able to “get your message out.” In some very rare instances candidates will fund their own campaigns, as is presently the case with Michael Bloomberg. However, most often candidates must approach donors, hold fundraisers and try to out-compete one another financially to get elected. This even extends to candidates for judicial positions.

In order to reduce the role that money plays in the process, the city’s campaign finance program gives candidates “matching funds” if they agree to spending caps and contribution limits. In exchange for abiding by these caps and limits, the city’s campaign finance program gives candidates $4 for every $1 they raise in donations less than $250. That quadruples the impact of each small donor and allows candidates with smaller donations to compete with those that get big checks. It also theoretically reduces the overall spending and time spent fundraising. The city has even instituted a bonus matching program of $6 for $1 when candidates face opponents who do not participate in the program and who spend above the spending cap that is placed on program participants.

For better or for worse, every year, our local officials tweak the program. Key changes that may be enacted in the coming year include:

  • Prohibiting contributions from donors that are “doing business” with the city. The city is now setting up an extensive database of those that have contracts with the city, whether it is for installing vending machines in the schools, or disposing of the city’s trash, in order to ensure greater disclosure. Regulating their contributions may be the next step.
  • Prohibiting the transfer of funds a candidate raises in a previous election cycle, for one office, to a candidate committee for another office. Candidates often stock pile money, or “war chests” to deter other candidates from joining the race. Prohibiting the transfer of funds raised for other offices will help level the playing field for those that have not been raising funds for years.
  • Capping the amount of money that the city will give to candidates under the matching provision if a candidate is not facing a serious challenger. The campaign finance program is perceived by many as too lenient in its dispersal of funds and too easily abused by candidates that face very minimal competition. Enforcing a stringent threshold of money raised by a challenger in order for candidates to receive the full allotment of matching funds can save the city hundreds of thousands of dollars each election cycle.

Term Limits

In the fall of 1993, New York City voters approved term limits for the city’s elected officials by a solid margin of 59 to 41 percent. Since 2001, when the inaugural class of city officials were term limited out, public servants have been limited to serve for two consecutive four-year periods. The public has come to accept term limits.

It is less certain how popular term limits are among those public officials who now hold office because of it. There is talk in the City Council of a bill that Councilmember Gale Brewer is planning to introduce after the election that will extend the two-term limit to three. Others are talking of trying to rescind the measure all together. Those who oppose term limits will tell you that voters can get rid of politicians by voting them out of office. They will also argue that when they leave office they take their years of experience with them, ultimately hurting the city and putting much more power in the hands of permanent government and staffers. But the voters have spoken in two referenda. It may provoke a backlash to do the opposite of what the voters wish.

Doug Israel is the public policy director of Citizens Union Foundation (publishers of Gotham Gazette), where Amy Ngai is program associate.