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.
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette