Gotham Gazette Wed, 11 Dec 2019 00:15:48 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) After Ballot Proposal Spending, Council Member Eyes Expansion of Independent Expenditure Disclosure 107 123 c3560 1

One PBA IE on 2019 ballot question 2 (photo via Campaign Finance Board filing)

Just after an election where the issue became especially apparent, a New York City lawmaker is planning to introduce legislation to close a loophole that has allowed independent expenditure committees to shield donors when they spend money to sway voters on ballot proposals. The potential change in city law would bring certain donor disclosure rules in line with state regulations and extend other city regulations to what is already required for political spending on candidates by groups outside the candidate campaign.

The move by Brooklyn City Council Member Brad Lander comes five years after the city enacted disclosure regulations on independent expenditures for candidates and following two consecutive general elections where city charter revision referenda went before voters.

In the most recent election, just completed, three groups -- each with its own independent expenditure committee registered with the state -- spent over $1 million either in support of or in opposition to ballot proposals. None of those entities had to disclose their contributors to the city’s Campaign Finance Board (CFB), forcing members of the public to navigate a labyrinth of city and state databases in order to get the most complete picture of the influence of large political spenders. Nor did the independent expenditure committees have to follow a city law mandating such groups disclose their top three donors on communications with voters, a regulation in place for promoting or disparaging candidates.

“In 2014, we created a great law to provide disclosure for independent expenditures on behalf of candidates, and there is already evidence that it is working,” Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat, wrote in an email to Gotham Gazette. “This year, the first significant expenditure on behalf of a ballot measure revealed to us the need to expand our disclosure rules, already among the strongest in the nation for candidates, to cover spending for ballot measures as well.”

“I am working on introducing legislation to do just that, to ensure that the same level of transparency applies across the ballot,” he said. Lander was the lead sponsor on the 2014 legislation that created the new independent expenditure transparency requirements. It came just after the city’s raucous 2013 election cycle when IEs played a significant role in the first mayoral race following the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, among other local elections where such spenders sought influence.

Lander’s stated plan comes days after the CFB issued a recommendation to the City Council suggesting lawmakers close gaps in the city’s campaign finance laws. Those gaps became more evident as spending around the ballot questions picked up in the days leading up to the general election this fall. Following the CFB recommendation, the Daily News Editorial Board endorsed the idea of closing the loophole.

In a press release issued Thursday, the CFB asked the Council to consider legislation that would amend the campaign finance laws in the City Charter to require independent expenditure committees to disclose their contributors to the CFB via its online portal; and publish “paid-for-by” notices on electioneering materials -- both of which are already required for spending on behalf of candidates under the 2014 law.

The City Charter also requires organizations making contributions of $50,000 or more to independent spenders on behalf of candidates to disclose all donors who gave more than $25,000 in the preceding 12 months.

Under the CFB recommendation, the paid-for-by notices would include a list of the independent spender’s top three donors as well as a weblink to the agency’s online portal, where the public can view detailed information on political spending. The aptly-titled “Follow the Money” portal presently contains details on how much was spent on political campaigns by independent expenditure committees, including what the spending went to and when it was spent, with images and videos of each ad posted or aired.

But that is the extent to which the public can follow the money through the CFB’s relatively user-friendly online resource. To find out who is bankrolling the independent expenditure committees, interested parties must visit the State Board of Elections’ cumbersome financial disclosure webpage where the information is largely decentralized.

“New York City has the country’s strongest disclosure requirements and resources for independent expenditures. Unfortunately, when it comes to ballot proposals, our law has a blind spot,” said CFB Executive Director Amy Loprest in the Thursday press release.

“Bringing the disclosure for ballot proposals in line with the requirements for independent expenditures about candidates will provide voters with important information that will help them cast informed votes, and we urge the Council to take action,” the statement reads.

For the past two general elections, New York City voters have had the opportunity to approve or reject City Charter amendments proposed by successive Charter Revision Commissions. Charter commissions can be empanelled by the mayor or through City Council legislation to examine the city’s central body of laws, take public testimony, and make recommendations for reform.

This year, the Charter Revision Commission was created by the City Council in conjunction with then-Public Advocate Letitia James and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. The commission put five questions on the ballot, together containing 19 distinct amendments, dealing with a range of city election and governance issues.

In the weeks leading up to the start of the nine-day early voting period in late October, and Election Day on November 5, three independent expenditure committees together spent roughly $1.15 million urging voters to cast ballots either for or against one or more of the proposals. All five questions were overwhelmingly approved by voters citywide.

The vast majority of independent spending was around Question 1, which contained an amendment that would bring ranked-choice voting to certain New York City elections. The voting method, which allows voters to list candidates in order of preference rather than making a single all-or-nothing choice, was backed by a coalition of good government reformers and elected officials under an independent expenditure committee called “Committee for Ranked Choice Voting NYC.” The committee spent a total of $986,017 on digital, TV, and direct mail advertising between mid-September and Election Day, according to the CFB portal.

But, while the principals of the committee are required to be reported to the CFB, the committee’s funders are not. According to the Daily News editorial, which analyzed data from the State Board of Elections, the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting had received a total of $1,996,948.33, of which 90 percent is from just four large contributors.

Ballot Question 2, which dealt with police oversight, also saw significant spending, but to vote down the proposal. That campaign was waged by the city’s largest police officer union.

While there were independent expenditures made for and against ballot proposals in the 2018 general election, the total independent spending on those campaigns was a much smaller $125,659, according to the CFB portal.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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After Ballot Proposal Spending, Council Member Eyes Expansion of Independent Expenditure Disclosure Tue, 12 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Do New Yorkers Know About the Ballot Questions They Can Answer This Fall? jack hts bus

(photo: @Charter2019NYC)

Just seven people trickled in from the rain to attend the information session in the Lower Gallery of the Bronx Museum of the Arts last Wednesday night. Despite the low turnout, the small group has the potential to reach dozens or even hundreds more people because most of those who attended represented organizations. They had come to the museum that night to gather information to bring back to their members about the proposals that will be on this year’s ballot, whereby voters will approve or disapprove 19 changes to New York City governance and elections.

The event was part of the outreach strategy of the 2019 New York City Charter Revision Commission, which has held an information session in each borough to educate the public on the five ballot questions -- containing the 19 suggested city charter amendments -- that are about to go before voters across the five boroughs.

The commission was created through City Council legislation to explore the charter and propose amendments for New Yorkers to approve or reject, and its work is now coming to fruition -- early voting begins Saturday, October 26, and runs through Sunday, November 3; Election Day is Tuesday, November 5.

In the end, the commission put forth various proposals that amount to significant changes, though not an upheaval of how city government works. But for the amount of change contained in the five ballot questions and the granular detail of each one, the commission faces an uphill battle to get the word out, and its partners in city government are not doing much to help. Meanwhile, the commission did its work during the one year of the four-year election cycle with the fewest political races on the ballot to help drum up interest and participation.

“I wanted to come because I had heard about some of the prior sessions but have not had the opportunity to come to one,” said Kerry McLean of Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation, who had braved the weather to find out how the amendments could impact her constituents.

“We’re getting a lot of information now, but there was not a lot of information,” she told Gotham Gazette.

The Bronx outreach session came after others in Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Queens, and just before the Manhattan session the next night. An initial round of info sessions in each borough took place in September. (There were a series of other open meetings and public hearings leading up to the commission issuing its proposals that also offered the public opportunities to learn about the process and participate in it. The commission received hundreds of recommendations from civic leaders, good government groups, and everyday New Yorkers, eventually winnowing them down to the 19 in five categories, from elections to police oversight to city budget, and others.)

On Wednesday night, the Charter Revision Commission’s staff gave an initial overview of the scope of the commission’s work and how it functioned.

There was a bit of an echo in the room where the four commission staff, in commission-branded t-shirts, spoke and answered questions. Tables were set up along the walls on either side of the room, each dedicated to a different ballot question, where the seven members of the audience would stop and listen or ask questions. Rows of empty foldable chairs stood between the tables.

Following the opening remarks, the group began the more intimate discussion of each ballot question where they took advantage of the opportunity to probe for more details.

The Charter Revision Commission is now in the final weeks of outreach to inform voters about what they will see on the ballot and the implications of each proposal. The proposed amendments deal with a wider range of issues than charter commissions in recent decades. They fall into five categories, each with its own ballot question: elections, Civilian Complaint Review Board, ethics and governance, city budget, and land use.

The question getting the most public attention is number one, which would institute ranked-choice voting for party primary and special elections. The change would allow voters to select candidates on the ballot by preference rather than choosing just one and is backed by a coalition of advocates. It would eliminate run-off elections and is intended to ensure more inclusive, positive campaigning where winners of crowded races are chosen with a wide base of support.

Perhaps the most controversial proposal is one that would give the Civilian Complaint Review Board the ability to prosecute officers who lie under investigation, which is one of the planks under Question 2. That provision initially failed during a vote of the Charter Revision Commission, but was later approved after some commissioners sought a revote. Along with four other pieces, approval of Question 2 would strengthen the CCRB’s oversight of the NYPD and alter its structure slightly. While many police reformers want to see it passed, the largest police officers union is mounting a campaign to defeat it.

Other significant pieces of Questions 3, 4, and 5 include extending the prohibition on former government officials lobbying city government from one year to two years; creating independent budgeting for the public advocate and borough presidents; a significant step toward the city being able to create a “rainy day fund” for budget savings; and giving more notice to community boards getting about land-use applications.

The commission was created by the City Council in partnership with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and then-Public Advocate Letitia James. Appointees came from Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Mayor Bill de Blasio, as well as James, Comptroller Scott Stringer, and the five borough presidents. No single office held a majority of the appointments, but Johnson selected the chair.

According to representatives, the commission has reached approximately 1,500 people at in-person info sessions, panels, and fairs and has shared its educational materials with over 3,000 civic and community groups throughout the city. There are roughly 5.2 million active registered voters across the city, a very small percentage of which are expected to turn out this fall.

“A major strategy of the outreach team has been to try to reach as many leaders as possible because we can only do so much with our small team,” said Marissa Solomon, a spokesperson for the Charter Revision Commission, in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

Commissioners and the Charter Revision Commission’s staff have presented at meetings of community boards, political clubs, and unions; civic groups like the Association for Better New York and the League of Women Voters; professional networks like the New York City Bar Association; at public libraries and in college classrooms. They have done radio, television, and podcast appearances. Subway and bus ads are running in English, Spanish, Bengali, Korean, and Traditional Chinese, according to Solomon.

Despite its efforts, the public likely remains uninformed about the content of the ballot proposals and even what role an appointed commission plays within the branches and auspices of city government. Several attendees at Wednesday night’s info session came into the meeting with the belief that the city’s Charter Revision Commission was involved in state efforts to deal with public campaign financing and fusion voting, which are being addressed in a separate commission created by Governor Cuomo and the State Legislature.

According to Solomon, the commission had a budget of between $1 million and $1.4 million for the full ad campaign, which is comprised of television, radio, print, transit, and social media ads, including a commercial hosted by the stars of Comedy Central’s “Broad City.”

She said to get the word out about the five-borough information sessions, the commission advertised on social media and sent information to news bulletins like the ones published by City & State, NY1, Politico New York, and the Associated Press. The commission has just 1,118 Twitter followers.

The info sessions held last week are the last scheduled before voters go to the polls, but Solomon believes the number of individuals engaged “will grow exponentially as Election Day draws closer.” She says this will be done largely through additional speaking engagements being organized with specific groups where the demand for information or the potential for broad reach is high.

The city’s Campaign Finance Board has been leading its own parallel outreach through its civic engagement initiative, NYC Votes. Throughout the month the CFB has been conducting an email campaign dedicated to each ballot proposal in the lead-up to the early voting period beginning October 26, though it is not clear how many subscribers those e-blasts have.

Information on each proposal is also part of the CFB’s voter guide, which is mailed to voters and available on its website, including statements from advocates for and against each proposal. NYC Votes has rolled out a paid social media campaign about the new early voting format with ad placements on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and a video directing voters to its website where they can access the Voter Guide.

"This year’s election is an opportunity for New Yorkers to start their early voting habit now--before we vote for president in 2020, and for mayor in 2021. With five important questions on the ballot, there isn't a better time to take advantage of New York's new early voting law," said Eric Friedman, Assistant Executive Director for Public Affairs at the CFB, in a statement.

But outside of the Charter Revision Commission and the Campaign Finance Board, few if any other city entities appear to be reaching out to voters.

Mayor de Blasio’s relatively new DemocracyNYC initiative, headed by Chief Democracy Officer Ayirini Fonseca-Sabune, is geared toward civic engagement and has been more focused on educating the public on the early voting system, according to administration spokesperson Jose Bayona.

“We work to complement the outreach of other agencies, including those doing outreach on the ballot questions,” Bayona wrote in an email, without providing specifics other than saying that the office has been directing voters to the CFB’s NYC Votes website.

A representative of City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who was instrumental in creating the charter commission, pointed to examples of tweets and a radio appearance in which Johnson directed voters to learn more about the proposed amendments.

“As a sponsor of the legislation that created this historic Charter Commission, Speaker Johnson has been vocal about urging New Yorkers to make their voices heard on our city’s constitution. The Speaker will continue educating the public about this opportunity through Election Day,” wrote the spokesperson.

Neither Johnson nor the larger Council that he heads nor other top elected officials appear to have made much, if any, effort to get the word out about the existence of the ballot measures, much less urging voters to turn out to approve or disapprove them.

The city Board of Elections has little on its website about the ballot questions other than a sample ballot that includes them, but there is nothing greeting visitors to the site that indicates all New York City voters will have the five questions to answer when turning up to the polls.

Vivian Carter, a Bronx-resident who attended Wednesday night’s info session, heard about it from City & State’s calendar of public events. “Well, I know about ranked-choice voting because there’s been a lot of discussion about it and, to be honest with you, I really haven’t seen too much in the media about what the four other proposals are,” she told Gotham Gazette.

“It’s just good to hear from these people that were involved and put this together. The fact that the Charter Revision Commission staff are here made me more interested in coming,” she added.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Do New Yorkers Know About the Ballot Questions They Can Answer This Fall? Tue, 22 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Williams Challengers Fail to Qualify for Official Public Advocate Debate, But Candidates May Spar Anyway jw jb db2

l-r: Devin Balkind, Jumaane Williams and Joe Borelli (photo: William Alatriste & John McCarten/City Council)

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, one of three citywide elected officials, is up for reelection this fall, but it looks like the Brooklyn Democrat won’t have to defend his (albeit short) tenure so far in a public forum with his two challengers. Neither Staten Island City Council Member Joe Borelli nor nonprofit leader Devin Balkind, the Republican and Libertarian nominees, respectively, seeking to unseat Williams, has qualified for the first of two official, televised debates scheduled in the public advocate race.

And from all indications, the second debate may also be out of the question, leaving it to Williams to decide whether to voluntarily debate his opponents in what is a special election to decide who is the public advocate for 2020 and 2021, the year of the next full city election cycle. Williams won the initial nonpartisan special election in February that decided the seat for the rest of this year after Letitia James stepped down after being elected New York Attorney General.

The New York City Campaign Finance Board hosts two mandatory debates before every citywide election for candidates who participate in the public matching funds program, which awards public money to match small dollar donations at either a 6-to-1 or 8-to-1 ratio, and meet the qualifying thresholds.

Those thresholds are meant to ensure that only viable candidates take the stage. For the first debate for this year’s public advocate election, set for this Thursday, October 10, candidates had to have raised and spent $113,875 by October 4, the latest campaign finance disclosure deadline.

Only Williams met the criteria, having raised $133,009 and spent $138,953 so far. Borelli, a former Assembly member popular in his deep red South Shore district, has raised $42,959 and spent $22,683 on his longshot bid to replace a Democrat in an overwhelmingly blue city. The Libertarian Party’s Balkind, who was also the party’s nominee for the same position in 2017, has raised just $3,825 and spent only $1,313.

Borelli and Balkind also don’t seem likely to qualify for the second debate, scheduled for October 29, which has higher qualifying thresholds including a raise-and-spend requirement of $136,650. Even Williams’ expenditure is just short of that mark at this point in what is shaping up to be a sleepy race for a citywide post first in line to the mayor. The candidates must also show either an endorsement from a local, state, or federal official representing the city or from a membership organization (such as a union) with 250 members who live in the city; or must have at least 750 small-dollar donors, who gave $250 or less, from the city in order to qualify.

Nonetheless, both challengers are pushing Williams to agree to debate them in other forums, but he has been noncommittal so far.

“Our campaign is moving full speed ahead leading up to the November 5th general election,” Williams said in a statement through a spokesperson. “We aren't taking anything for granted, so as we enter into the final stretch, we will be working aggressively to speak directly to voters to discuss the work we've done since entering office and plan moving forward to address some of the toughest challenges New Yorkers face today.”

Early voting, being implemented for the first time in New York this year, kicks off October 26 and runs through November 3. Election Day is November 5. There are few elections on the ballot this fall, but there are several ballot questions of proposals from the 2019 New York City Charter Revision Commission to change aspects of city elections and governance. While there are some local races, the public advocate special election is the only other citywide vote at hand.

Manhattan Neighborhood Network is attempting to organize a debate and both Borelli and Balkind have expressed a commitment to participating, pending scheduling and Williams’ participation. Williams’ spokesperson, when asked if the public advocate would participate, said the campaign is "working to lock in our participation for a separate debate soon." It is unclear at this point if NY1 will successfully host a debate that is not part of the official Campaign Finance Board program. A spokesperson for Spectrum News, NY1’s parent company, said in a statement, "We look forward to hosting a debate before the election with both candidates on NY1."

Borelli, who conceded that it’s doubtful he’ll qualify for the second debate, has for months been calling on Williams to do a series of podcast debates without a moderator that would be broadly accessible to members of the public. He made that request in a June 12 letter he sent to Williams, in which he freely acknowledged that the incumbent is the frontrunner and said neither of them should accept public funds from the CFB to reduce the cost of the election. “[I] am proposing a way to reach all New Yorkers in a novel, unique, and groundbreaking way,” he wrote.

“I asked him to do a weekly podcast on whatever topics he wanted to discuss, for a few weeks leading up to the election,” Borelli said in a text message on Monday. “I actually think it would be an entertaining show.” Williams has not accepted the invitation.

Borelli also said he didn’t want to attend debates limited to advocacy group members. “For example, I wouldn’t waste my time at a debate hosted by a ‘Close Rikers’ advocacy group. I’d chalk their support up to a loss before I waste a moment,” he said of the types of issue or community-based candidate forums that often dot campaigns, as they did ahead of the February public advocate special election, where more than 20 candidates appeared at many events to talk to voters. There were also two televised, officially-sanctioned debates in that special election, which Williams won in a runaway despite the crowded field including many sitting office-holders.

For Balkind, a public debate could potentially drum up some limited amount of support. “If I have a platform to share my solutions I'll prove there are more libertarians in this city than there are Trump supporters,” he said in an email, pointing to a rapid growth in the Libertarian Party’s membership. “We won official status in New York State for the first time in 2018. I'm the first candidate of the official party. The sky is the limit,” he said. Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Larry Sharpe won 95,033 votes in last fall’s election, coming in fourth, and therefore securing the party’s ballot line for four years.

Balkind also chided civic institutions for not organizing debates outside the official ones sponsored by the CFB and its partners. “With modern technology it's never been cheaper and easier to produce a video broadcast,” he said. “We need civic organizations to take more responsibility for the health of our city's democracy. Why are New Yorkers relying on a partnership between a government agencies (NYCCFB) and a for profit corporation (Spectrum Cable) to produce debates? We reap what we sow and this a reason why government bureaucracies and corporations are getting what they want from New York City's political class, but everyday New Yorkers aren't.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Note - this article has been updated to include a statement from a spokesperson for Spectrum News. 

Williams Challengers Fail to Qualify for Official Public Advocate Debate, But Candidates May Spar Anyway Mon, 07 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City Launches Pilot Voter Guide for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing New Yorkers votes hard of hearing guide

the CFB models its new voter guide (photo: Gotham Gazette)

New York City is home to more than 200,000 residents who are deaf and hard of hearing, and they almost never vote. It’s not for a lack of will, but rather because of inadequate access to information on voter registration and candidates, according to city officials. To address that gap, the city is launching its first-ever voter guide in American Sign Language, a long overdue measure to ensure that deaf and hard-of-hearing voters are able to participate in the city’s democratic process.

The New York City Campaign Finance Board, which releases voter guides for each election with information on the candidates and questions on the ballot, created the guide in collaboration with The Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities (MOPD), the city’s DemocracyNYC office, and advocates from the deaf community. It will be released on Thursday.

“We were trying to figure out a way to provide this information to the deaf and hard-of-hearing community in their native language,” said MOPD’s Tony Wooden Jr., at a Wednesday presentation provided to Gotham Gazette at the agency’s office in downtown Manhattan. Wooden Jr. is project supervisor of ASL Direct, a video-calling assistance line that MOPD runs for deaf and hard-of-hearing New Yorkers.

The ASL voter guide complements the Campaign Finance Board’s current work by including an ASL interpreter in videos where candidates running for local office introduce themselves to voters. Keeping in mind the diversity in the deaf and hard-of-hearing population, the video guide does not include captions and employs a deaf interpreter who can reach a broader audience. “A lot of times, when you’re watching something on TV, you can usually turn on closed captions and read the words. But in the deaf community, you have to keep in mind that English is not the first language, American Sign Language is,” said Wooden Jr.

Dennis Martinez, a deaf services advocate at Harlem Independent Living Center, worked with the city on the voter guide project. “This is the first time we've ever had access to candidate information for the deaf community,” Martinez, who is deaf, said through an interpreter. “And up until this point, there's been no efforts made by other spaces as well, that I know of. So this has been wonderful in terms of advocating for deaf rights in our city as well as getting information out to people who are voters.”

“The way she's signing as a deaf interpreter is appropriate for deaf people of all different backgrounds and levels of skill and language skill level,” Martinez said watching the voter guide interpreter. “Because she's expanding the concepts more than just interpreting the words.”

The guide is the latest effort by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration to expand access to voting and voter turnout through the recently-launched DemocracyNYC initiative. One of its goals has been to provide more poll-site services to people with disabilities. Nisha Agarwal, senior advisor to the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Strategic Policy Initiatives, which runs the initiative, said they are working on helping people with disabilities reach the polls and on providing ballot marker devices. They’ll push the new guide out through advocacy groups and all community events being hosted by the CFB, MOPD, and DemocracyNYC. “We will put it in anything that makes sense,” Agarwal said.

Officials stressed this year’s guide is a pilot. “We want to work on improving this,” said Agarwal, who was at Wednesday’s presentation along with Matt Sollars, CFB’s director of public relations.

On that front, Agarwal said this year’s passage of early voting by the state Legislature was welcome news. Sollars said it would help reduce lines at polling site on Election Day, particularly during next year’s presidential election, and will particularly help facilitate voting by the deaf community. “Now you have a lot more time to get to the polls when it's convenient for you, which I would imagine is really important to this community,” Sollars said. “It's going to be a game changer on access for everybody, but particularly for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.”

With the launch of the ASL voter guide on Thursday, the city is also hoping to drive deaf voters to register before the October 11 deadline for the general election, for which early voting will begin on October 26. Election Day this year is Tuesday, November 5. Martinez said HILC is looking to set up a voting workshop, to encourage registration as well as instruct deaf voters on absentee voting (the deadline for postmarking absentee ballots for the general election is October 29). 

In the next citywide election, in 2021, the CFB will have its work cut out for it and Sollars said the pilot ASL guide will teach them valuable lessons. “We have 500 candidates that we’re expecting to register with us for the 2021 elections,” he said. “So it will be a big task to produce the interpretations...This was great, we learned a lot, and we're going to be able to take those lessons into production in 2021.”

[Read: Dates, Deadlines, Elections & Ballot Questions: Everything You Need to Know for Fall 2019 in New York City]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

City Launches Pilot Voter Guide for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing New Yorkers Wed, 02 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Council Hears 3 Campaign Finance Bills to Enhance Low-Dollar Impact, Limit Criminals, Curb Conflicts council comm hearing

Council Member Keith Powers (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

The City Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations held a hearing Wednesday to discuss three bills related to campaign finance reform. Two of the bills would prohibit candidates convicted of felony corruption or misuse of public funds from receiving public matching funds and reduce the matching funds contribution minimum from $10 to $5. They are sponsored by Council Members Fernando Cabrera and Keith Powers, respectively. Cabrera is the chair of the governmental operations committee.

The third bill, also sponsored by Powers, would amend the definition of “business dealing with the city” to include an earlier trigger in the land use review process. That bill would make those entities with uncertified applications under the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) and zoning text amendments part of the “doing business” database that severely limits what they can give to political candidates, with the goal of decreasing the influence of large real estate contributions in elections and the opportunity for pay-to-play politics.

The hearing included testimony from representatives of the New York City Campaign Finance Board (CFB), which runs the city’s public matching system and trains, monitors, and audits campaigns; and Reinvent Albany, a good government advocacy group. Each of the bills is based upon recommendations filed by the CFB in its 2017 post-election report.

Prohibition of Funds for Felons
Currently, the campaign finance act prohibits candidates from receiving public funds if they have been convicted of felony fraud in the course of program participation. It does not prevent candidates convicted of fraud or corruption more broadly from receiving public funds.

In 2017, a candidate participating in the city’s matching system, Hiram Monserrate, who received public funds had previously served 21 months in prison for using government funds to pay campaign staff.

“Ensuring individuals with a track record of fraud do not receive public funds is not only good public policy but is fundamental to the integrity of the matching funds program,” CFB Executive Director Amy Loprest said at the hearing.

While supportive of the bill, Loprest suggested that the Council could do more to ensure that public funds are not given to those who have a track record of misusing them. She encouraged the Council members to extend the bill to cover misdemeanors related to corruption, and to specify the language of the bill to explicitly tie previous crimes to an individual’s actions as a candidate or office-holder.

Loprest also suggested that the committee implement sunset clauses of five years for misdemeanors and 10 years for felonies, after which a candidate would again be able to receive matching funds.

Lowering of Matching Funds Contribution form $10 to $5
To qualify for the city’s public financing program, candidates must meet a two-part fundraising threshold. Depending on the office sought, candidates must receive a certain number of contributions of at least $10. This bill would lower the requirement to qualify for the threshold from $10 to $5.

Currently, all contributions are eligible for public matching, but contributions under $10 do not count towards meeting the threshold to receive public funds. Critics of the current system argue that a minimum contribution of $10 can impose too significant a burden on New Yorkers from economically-disadvantaged areas of the city. For candidates seeking to represent these areas in local elections, achieving the minimum number of contributions to reach the threshold can be a challenge exacerbated by the high minimum.

The campaign finance board discussed lowering the minimum to $1, but determined that $5 was “a balance between showing serious support and the financial burden from people from certain districts,” Loprest said at the hearing. The city typically encounters few $1 contributions, she said.

During the 2017 election cycle, just 186 contributions to Council candidates, or 0.72 percent, were under $10, and 30 contributions, or 0.12 percent, were under $5, according to a review by Reinvent Albany.

“Lowering the amount to $5 would allow more residents to participate in helping their favored candidates qualify for matching funds, and more candidates would be able to meet the threshold sooner in the election year,” Loprest said at the hearing.

“For large-scale elections in the city it would be an easier way to encourage people to get into the matching funds program,” Council Member Powers said of his bill.

Amending the Definition of “Business Dealings”
The third bill discussed would place limits on contributions to candidates running for office from persons with “business dealings” with the city.

Included in “business dealings” is applications for approval under ULURP and applications for zoning text amendments, but currently only after the City Planning Commission has certified an application as complete. Often, these applications are filed months or years before they are certified by the City Planning Commission. Those who file applications can thus make maximum contributions after filing their application for land use changes but before it is certified, providing more opportunity for a pay-to-play culture and undue influence, or at least the appearance of it.

Persons seeking land use approvals made up less than 1% of individuals doing business with the city during 2017 election cycle, but they were significantly more likely to make campaign contributions. Nearly 20% of those seeking land use contributions made contributions to candidates during the cycle, according to the CFB. Currently, there are 87 ULURP and land use applications in the city that remain uncertified, according to the CFB.

Amending the definition of “business dealings” will allow the city to include those who have filed an application but have not yet been certified by the City Planning Commission to hold them to the same standard as those who have already been certified. Maximum contributions to candidates vary based on the office sought, as do the much lower doing business limits. For example, the maximum donation someone on the doing business list can give to a candidate for mayor is $400.

Including applications that are not yet certified in “business dealings” is “an effective way to ensure that the matching funds program is doing everything it can to curb both corruption and the appearance of corruption,” Loprest said at the hearing.

In all other “business dealings,” with the city, people are compiled into and remain in the city’s doing business database for one year after the end of the transaction. This management system allows the campaign finance board to determine if a contribution is within the applicable limit. Loprest testified that land use application under the ULURP coverage period should also remain in the database for one year.

“If we’re going to have a system where we limit contributions for those doing business we should limit contributions when those business discussions begin,” Powers said at the hearing.

by Noah Berman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Council Hears 3 Campaign Finance Bills to Enhance Low-Dollar Impact, Limit Criminals, Curb Conflicts Thu, 20 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Council Passes Campaign Finance Bill Roiling Early Mayoral Race Johnson Kallos City Council

Council Members Kallos, left, & Rodriguez, right, with Speaker Johnson (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

The City Council passed a much-anticipated, controversial campaign finance bill Thursday, raising the cap on how much public funding a campaign can receive and altering other dynamics of the city’s matching system. The bill -- the source of significant consternation over the past several days, particularly among likely 2021 mayoral candidates - passed by a vote of 41-6, with one abstention, and three absences.

The legislation, which Mayor de Blasio has indicated support for, increases the public matching funds ceiling so that campaigns are able to raise only smaller donations and still have enough money to hit their spending limit. It also has a retroactivity component, a bill change within just the past 10 days, that caused a stir and appears likely to impact several upcoming races, including the Democratic primary for mayor.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, a likely 2021 mayoral candidate, and City Council Member Ben Kallos, the lead sponsor of the bill, defended the legislation, including retroactivity that will make candidates return money raised in 2018 above new lower donation limits if they choose to opt into the newer of two programs that has more public matching.

That portion of the bill stands to benefit Johnson and hurt competitors like Comptroller Scott Stringer, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.

“We are literally doing something that is entirely consistent with what we did three months ago and now all of a sudden we are being criticized for it,” Johnson said at the press conference, referring to actions the Council took to make new campaign finance rules approved by voters last year apply to the special election for Public Advocate.

Johnson, who pledged in January not to take any donations larger than $250 as he explores a mayoral run, said he has long supported the legislation and it has nothing to do with the race. He and Kallos also pointed out that the retroactivity component was discussed during an April hearing on the bill and recommended by the Campaign Finance Board so that an entire four-year election cycle would be run by the same rules, for whichever of the two programs candidates choose.

Still, neither Kallos nor Johnson had a clear answer for why the amendment to the bill had come so close to the Council’s votes on the matter.

Johnson noted the difficulty in creating legislation that affects lawmakers themselves.

“It’s hard to vote on these things because every time you do you’re potentially affecting yourself and your colleagues in what you do. It’s one of the challenging things you deal with as a current elected official when you start to look at the system that exists and you seek to improve it or change it,” Johnson said.

“For the current election cycle, just like we did for public advocate, when no one criticized it, you need to pick option A or option B,” Johnson said at the press conference. “No one is being forced to opt into the 8-to-1 [matching] system. We are just saying if you are going to opt into one system, be consistent throughout the entire cycle,” Johnson said.

If Stringer or others opt into the new system, they would receive its 8-to-1 match on all qualifying donations $250 or under, but under maximum individual donations of $2,000 (down from $5,100 for citywide candidates), and they would, based on the new Council bill, have to return the difference on any donations above the new maximum. That last aspect is what has driven Stringer and others to call Johnson out.

Others have criticized the bill for using more taxpayer money.

“I’m not sure how we look a homeless person in the eye and tell them we can’t find them an affordable place to live but don’t worry we have money for our next campaign mailing,” Council Member Kalman Yeger, a Brooklyn Democrat, said on the Council floor before the vote. He voted no, as he had done in committee on Tuesday.

Supporters of the bill pointed out it’s potential to decrease the power of special interests and large donors in politics.

“I can’t believe we’re standing here having an argument over how much big money people should get to take after the voters said they want politicians to get less big money,” Kallos said at the press conference.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone say to me ‘I don’t want my dollars matched.’ The public match is increasing participation and the taxpayers, the residents actually like it. They like having their voices amplified and direct access to elected officials that they otherwise wouldn’t,” Kallos added.

“There’s a lot of cynicism in government because people feel like big donors have too much access in government, and here’s a way to take big money out and have it be publicly financed,” Johnson said at the press conference.

Representatives for Stringer, who would likely have to return the most money under the new system, if he sticks with the program of lower donation limits and higher matching, called Johnson amending the legislation and pushing it through a “brazen power grab” and using his government position to advantage his campaign.

“Johnson is rushing through a law that explicitly benefits him,” wrote Stringer spokesperson Tyrone Stevens on Twitter. “It’s deeply unethical and it’s not good government. Shame on him.”

"I’m a firm believer you don’t change the game in the middle of the game,” Adams told the Max & Murphy podcast on Wednesday, “...any major changes in the system should not be beneficial to any party involved. And I think that’s part of what Scott Stringer was saying." Adams said he wasn’t yet sure which of the two campaign finance programs he’ll choose.

A spokesperson for Diaz Jr. did not respond to a request for comment.

At the Council on Thursday, among those voting no was Yeger, who sits on the Committee on Governmental Operations, which first heard and passed the bill, sending it to the full Council. Joining Yeger in opposition were Council Members Mark Gjonaj and Ruben Diaz, Sr., both Bronx Democrats, and the Council’s three Republicans: Council Members Eric Ulrich, Steven Matteo, and Joseph Borelli.

Council Member I. Daneek Miller was the sole abstention. Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, who was absent for the committee vote on Tuesday, was also absent for the vote by the Council, despite having been present during the press conference preceding the full Council meeting.

by Noah Berman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

Council Passes Campaign Finance Bill Roiling Early Mayoral Race Thu, 13 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Amid Controversy, City Council Moves Ahead with Campaign Finance Bill Extending Public Match committee gov op

Council Members Yeger, left, and Cabrera, right (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

Significantly more public funding of political campaigns appears on the way given legislation that the City Council Committee on Governmental Operations passed on Tuesday.

The bill, sponsored by Ben Kallos, a Manhattan Democrat, aims to prevent corruption and increase engagement with local communities by adjusting the public matching funds system to allow candidates to raise only relatively small donations and receive enough public money to reach the spending limit in their race.

Though the bill has over 30 sponsors in the 51-seat Council and passed the committee 4-1 on Tuesday, a last-minute amendment to the legislation caused a significant stir, including accusations of impropriety by Comptroller Scott Stringer against City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, both likely mayoral candidates in the next election.

Expected to be passed by the full Council on Thursday, the bill lifts the cap on how much public funding – or taxpayer money – a participating campaign can receive from Campaign Finance Board. The cap, currently set at 75 percent of the spending limit for participating candidates, would rise to 89.9%, effectively making it a full match relative to the spending limit when the private funds involved are also taken into consideration.

The city’s campaign finance system currently has two tracks, “Option A” and “Option B,” that only apply to the 2021 election cycle, before the newer of the two programs takes full hold. That program, “Option A,” includes lower individual donation thresholds and matches the first $250 of individual contributions at an 8-to-1 ratio for a maximum disbursement of $2,000 in public funds per contribution.

These rules are the result of a November 2018 referendum that both raised the disbursement cap and increased the public matching ratio. But it also left in place the old system, which has much higher contribution limits and matches the first $175 of donations at 6-to-1.

Different offices, from citywide posts like mayor and comptroller to borough presidencies to City Council seats, have different donation and spending limits.

The change to individual contribution limits in Option A dropped the maximum donation limit from $5,100 to $2,000 for citywide candidates who opt into that program.

Related to that new donation cap, an amendment to the legislation being passed this week has caused a rift among mayoral candidates and raised eyebrows around city government.

The amendment requires candidates who opt into the new system to return contributions from 2018 that go over the new maximums, which could mean a $3,100 return on each maximum donation for participants.

The November referendum allowed candidates participating in the system to choose between the new rules – with the higher public match but lower contribution limits – and the old rules until 2022, when candidates will have to conform entirely to the new rules to receive public funds. The 2021 city elections are expected to be highly competitive, crowded affairs, with almost all city seats open due to term limits.

Comptroller Scott Stringer, one of several likely mayoral candidates in the upcoming election, would be particularly impacted by the amendment. He’d have to return many thousands of dollars in campaign donations from the past year if he wanted to opt into the new matching system. As first reported by the Daily News, Stringer viewed this amendment as a “brazen power grab” by fellow mayoral candidate and Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

“The voters passed a groundbreaking campaign finance system to clean up government, not corrupt it,” a Stringer spokesperson said. “Speaker Johnson is trying to circumvent the will of the voters and change the rules to benefit himself. The Council should reject his brazen power grab.”

A spokesperson for Johnson reiterated that it’s optional for candidates to return their contributions and said that the amendment was created at the recommendation of the CFB.

“The changes were made at the strong urging of the CFB. Both because of fairness and administrative efficiency,” Jennifer Femino, a spokesperson for Johnson, said. “That said, no contributions made in a prior election cycle will have to be returned. Any candidate who wants to keep their big money donations from the last cycle is free to do so and maintain their edge over the competition.”

Council Member Kallos stressed to Gotham Gazette that not only did the CFB recommend retroactivity because it would then make administration of the program easier, but that Kallos led an extended conversation on changing the bill to include retroactivity during the initial April hearing on the legislation. The amendment wasn’t made until just days before the committee vote, however.

On Tuesday, governmental operations committee member, Keith Powers, a Manhattan Democrat, referenced the Stringer-Johnson rift during the hearing, though he didn’t name either of them. He said he was “certainly sensitive to the concerns that have been raised amongst those who are current candidates that feel this bill has a negative impact on them,” but remained supportive of the bill and voted yes.

There was opposition to the bill at the hearing, from City Council Member Kalman Yeger, a Brooklyn Democrat. He said it disregards what the voters decided with the 2018 referendum and amounts to little besides another big dip into taxpayers’ pockets.

“It doesn’t seem to me that when the voters voted in November, they put an asterisk next to their vote and said, ‘Hey, this is what we’re voting for, but just in case you get a chance, take some more money out of our pockets and do this a little better,’” Yeger said. “I don’t think we got that message. I didn’t get that message, that’s not what I heard. What I heard was, there was a yes/no question, and the yes won.”

Yeger was the sole no in the 4-1 vote, with Council Members Kallos, Powers, Alan Maisel, and committee chair Fernando Cabrera voting to approve. Two committee members were absent from the vote: Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez and Bill Perkins.

The bill now goes to the full Council for a vote on Thursday. If it passes there, it will go to Mayor Bill de Blasio for likely approval.

by Caitlyn Rosen, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Amid Controversy, City Council Moves Ahead with Campaign Finance Bill Extending Public Match Tue, 11 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Expected to Pass Bill - with Controversial Amendment - Raising Cap on Public Matching Funds for Campaigns Ben Kallos City Council

Council Member Kallos (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

A City Council committee is expected on Tuesday to pass a bill aimed at reducing the influence of large donors on New York City candidates and elections by creating the possibility for candidates to essentially raise all smaller donations and earn enough public matching funds to fully reach the spending limit imposed by the city’s campaign finance program. But the bill, which has recently been amended in a significant way, is stirring controversy as it heads to a vote, with accusations against Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Member Ben Kallos, the bill's lead sponsor, that they are playing political games.

If adopted, the bill would lift the cap on the amount of public money a campaign can receive as a percentage of the spending limits on candidates who choose to participate in the matching funds system, which is run by the city's Campaign Finance Board (CFB). If passed as expected on Tuesday by the Council’s governmental operations committee, the bill would then move to a Thursday vote of the full Council, where it would be overwhelmingly likely to pass.

The new amendment to the bill, however, poses a potential hiccup in the process. The legislation now requires any political candidate who opts into the new campaign finance system -- with its lower individual donation limits, more generous public matching of small donations, and the potentially higher match threshold that the bill would create -- to return any contributions over the new system's maximum received in 2018. The maximum has dropped from a $5,100 individual contribution to $2,000 for citywide candidates, meaning a $3,100 return on each maximum donation if a candidate decides to opt into the new system.

Comptroller Scott Stringer, a likely mayoral candidate along with Johnson and others, would particularly be impacted by the bill amendment, and his campaign is calling out Johnson and Kallos, as first reported by the Daily News. If Stringer wants to access the new matching system, which is optional for only the current 2021 election cycle, he would have to return many thousands of dollars in contributions he received last year as he built a significant war chest for the upcoming race.

"Speaker Johnson is trying to circumvent the will of the voters and change the rules to benefit himself," a Stringer spokesperson said in a statement. "The Council should reject his brazen power grab.”

With the vote scheduled for Tuesday's noon committee hearing, it appears unlikely the bill will be derailed.

Responding to Stringer's criticism, Jennifer Fermino, a spokesperson for Johnson said, “The changes were made at the strong urging of the CFB. Both because of fairness and administrative efficiency. That said, no contributions made in a prior election cycle will have to be returned. Any candidate who wants to keep their big money donations from the last cycle is free to do so and maintain their edge over the competition.”

If passed by the full Council, the bill would then be at the mercy of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who would be likely to approve it. If it becomes law, the new thresholds would alter the landscape for the already-underway 2021 city election cycle that is set to feature an estimated 500 candidates for a wide variety of city offices. Most current officeholders from the mayor through the borough presidents and City Council members are term-limited from seeking reelection. Many term-limited officials, including Stringer and Johnson, will be seeking election to higher office.

The city’s campaign finance system is among the most robust of its kind and is lauded as a model for regulating campaign spending while promoting competitive elections, regardless of the wealth of candidates. Its signature components include a voluntary public financing program that matches small-dollar contributions; spending limits and restrictions on expenditures for participants; and thorough disclosure requirements and auditing.

“This legislation expands the new campaign finance laws overwhelmingly adopted by 80% of the voters on November 6, 2018, from only matching 75% of contributions to matching all of them at 89.89% so that the voices of everyday working New Yorkers are amplified over that of big money and lobbyists,” Kallos said in an emailed statement to Gotham Gazette, referring to a successful ballot referendum that passed last year to increase matching funds and reduce individual donation limits.

The matching system encourages candidates to seek small-dollar contributions and, as a result, reach out to more constituents, rather than soliciting large contributions from the city’s wealthiest political donors who often have or want city business or favors.

Supporters say it reduces the risk of corruption and contributes to the diversity of candidates. Through a series of public referenda and legislation since it was established in 1988, the public match has been expanded along with limits on the types of contributions participating candidates can receive and the amounts they can spend. The most recent changes to the program came out of the referendum to revise the City Charter last November.

There is currently a cap on the amount of public funds a participant in the city’s program, administered by the Campaign Finance Board, can receive. Caps are set at a percentage of the total spending limit for the different offices, forcing candidates to rely on a mix of public and private dollars, which the CFB believes has important benefits. To the board, striking the right balance with sensitivity to the shifting demands of campaigning in New York is key to the program’s success.

“The Program remains strong because of our work with the Council over the years to ensure that it evolves to meet the challenges of an evolving political landscape,” said Amy Loprest, executive director of the CFB, before the City Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations when she testified on an earlier version of the bill in April.

Kallos’ bill is sponsored by 31 other Council members in the 51-seat chamber and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. It would tip the balance toward a full match and would also codify into the city Campaign Finance Act relevant pieces of the ballot referendum approved by voters last year.

Supporters of a full public match argue the system still leaves the city’s rich and powerful with outsized influence, especially in citywide races where candidates rely more on large contributions than candidates for City Council do. “In a system where every small dollar is matched, big money, PAC money, and lobbyist money that is not matched is far less valuable,” reads a press release from Kallos’ office.

One concern from the CFB is that increasing the amount of public funds limits the ability of candidates to spend campaign dollars on non-qualified expenditures -- things like childcare, post-election spending, payments in cash, and attorney fees for defending nominating petitions, among others. After an election, candidates must return any unused public funds and have to pay back money used on expenditures if they cannot show they were qualified. (Kallos’ bill, Intro. 732, has been amended since the April hearing to allow expenditures on ballot petition defense to become a qualified use of public funds.)

Candidates also have to return funds if they lack serious opposition or “do not end up running serious campaigns,” according to Loprest. For the candidates with the fewest resources -- the campaigns the program is intended to best support -- these liabilities can be discouraging and ultimately crippling.

Last year’s referendum, placed on the ballot by the 2018 Charter Revision Commission, resulted in the creation of new program parameters including increasing the public match on qualifying smaller donations from 6-to-1 to 8-to-1 and raising the amount of funds available from 55 percent to 75 percent of the spending limit.

The public matching funds program now matches the first $250 of contributions at a ratio of 8:1, meaning an individual contribution of that amount could trigger a disbursement of $2,000 in public funds. It also reduced the amount an individual can contribute from $5,100 to $2,000 for citywide races, from $3,950 to $1,500 for borough president races, and $2,850 to $1,000 for City Council races.

Another change allowed public funds to be disbursed to candidates earlier in the campaign cycle.

For the 2021 elections, participating candidates will have the choice of opting into the new program, known as “Option A,” or sticking with the old rules, “Option B.” After 2021, the new system will become the only option. The choice was created to allow candidates who have already raised money under the old rules to stick with them.

The earlier disbursement of public funds can exacerbate the risks associated with unqualified expenditures for candidates who rely too heavily on them, according to Loprest. While making payments earlier in the election cycle allows candidates to be more competitive from the start and provides more time to deal with compliance issues, it can also lead them to spend more money that may need to be returned later, if they or their opponents drop out.

Kallos, a Democrat representing parts of the Upper East Side, was the prime sponsor of a law passed in 2016, which dealt with the risks of early disbursement by setting a limit on the payments made before the ballot is finalized. The 2018 charter commission also bars early payments to candidates who could not show they were opposed by a serious candidate.

The original version of Kallos’ bill removed that prohibition, raising concerns for the CFB. The new version being considered Tuesday includes a number of changes apparently aimed at addressing those concerns. Financial disclosures would have to be filed prior to early payment dates and candidates would be required to complete a certification of participation in advance of any payment date, Kallos told Gotham Gazette. Candidates receiving funds before the ballot petitioning period would have to be “actively campaigning” in order to make qualified expenditures.

“We were pleased to work with the Council in this most recent version of the legislation to address some of the concerns we raised in April,” Matt Sollars, a CFB spokesperson, told Gotham Gazette by email. Kallos echoed the sentiment, saying that the Council listens to “a lot of testimony” and changed the bill as a result of feedback from the CFB and other experts.

Most controversially and at the last minute, the new version of the bill also has language that would make the new rules for Option A -- both the 8-to-1 match and the lower contribution limits -- retroactive to apply to contributions received before the referendum changes went into effect on January 12, 2019. Candidates seeking to benefit from the new higher match would have to return any contributions above the new limits, even if received prior to the law changing.

For candidates running for citywide posts, that means $3,100 of every maximum contribution would have to be returned.

This could be especially challenging for candidates like Comptroller Scott Stringer, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, all of whom have been raising money in planned campaigns for mayor. The fourth expected Democratic mayoral candidate at this point is City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who began raising money for a mayoral run earlier this year with a number of self-imposed rules, including not taking any donations above $250. Johnson stands to benefit, comparatively speaking, from the amended version of Kallos’ bill that would make others return thousands of dollars if they opt into the new system.

The move that particularly stands to hurt Stringer and help Johnson, is being called a "power grab" and using of government position to impact a political campaign.

“If I need to pass a law to get people to do the right thing I'll do it,” Kallos told Gotham Gazette over the phone when asked about the amendment. “If they don't want to participate in the new system, there is nothing saying they have to,” he added.

The bill could also of course help Kallos and many of his other Council colleagues who may be seeking higher office like a borough presidency or the comptroller’s seat.

Kallos was also the author of a law passed this year that allowed candidates running in the February special election to replace former Public Advocate Letitia James to opt in to the new public matching parameters established in the referendum. For Loprest and the CFB, the election showcased the positive effects already unfolding from the increase in the partial match.

“Early data from that special election shows that this new iteration of the Program is working as intended,” she told the committee in April. “The most frequent contribution size across all candidates was just $10, compared to $100 in previous citywide races.”

For the bill on the table Tuesday, supporters in the Council are eager for the cap on public funds to be raised further. “We need these reforms now,” wrote Council Member Fernando Cabrera, a Democrat from the Bronx who chairs the governmental operations committee, in an email to Gotham Gazette.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated, and will continue to be updated as the situation around the bill changes.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

City Council Expected to Pass Bill - with Controversial Amendment - Raising Cap on Public Matching Funds for Campaigns Mon, 10 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
With 500 Candidates Expected for 2021 Election Cycle, Campaign Finance Board Starts Early Outreach running

(photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)

The city’s Campaign Finance Board is gearing up for what is likely to be the biggest and most competitive municipal election in its 30-year history. In 2021, 35 of the City Council’s 51 incumbents, as well as the mayor, comptroller, and all five borough presidents, will be ineligible for reelection due to term-limits, providing an inviting playing field for dozens upon dozens of candidates to seek elected office, whether for the first time or in pursuit of a promotion.

Some candidates have already filed with the Board to indicate which office they are seeking, while others have made their intentions known, and many more will declare in the coming months. With party primaries now scheduled for June of any election year for city or state contests, the 2021 city election cycle will likely be in full swing in 2020.

The CFB, responsible for administering New York City’s campaign finance program, is planning a “5 Borough Tour” of candidate trainings this summer to prepare potential candidates for the rigor of the city’s system and the fundraising, spending, and disclosures. Most candidates will also participate in the public matching program, which will ultimately involve many millions of dollars in public funds the board will distribute starting in December 2020.

The Campaign Finance Board anticipates up to or even beyond 500 campaigns will register in New York City for the 2021 cycle based on turnout from similar elections in previous years. To meet the high demand and ensure each campaign receives its legally required trainings, the CFB plans to hold over 250 training sessions over the next year and a half, both at its offices in downtown Manhattan and throughout the five boroughs.

Thousands of individuals may need to be trained, as candidates, campaign treasurers, and other staff are brought up to speed on the rules regulating campaigning, fundraising, spending, and participating in the matching funds program.

"The CFB's matching funds program helps more candidates run for city office, so we want to expand the pool of potential candidates by making our trainings accessible to more New Yorkers," said Amy Loprest, Executive Director of the CFB, said in a statement announcing the new effort, which will begin in June.

The CFB is partnering with public libraries in each borough to provide a venue for the upcoming satellite trainings, in addition to the regular sessions held at the Board’s Manhattan offices.

The five-borough tour will include a new training course geared specifically toward first-time candidates, with information intended to orient them to the demands of waging a campaign in New York City, where they will be subject to strict fundraising and disclosure obligations.

Unlike other trainings related to compliance rules and navigating the CFB’s online portal, which campaigns are mandated by law to attend, the new courses are not required but are strongly encouraged by the CFB, which wants to lay as much groundwork as possible for a smooth election cycle, which also includes a variety of new donation limits, matching rates, and other specifications passed by voters during a 2018 ballot referendum.

The city may be facing a perfect storm of potential stresses on campaign finance administrators in 2021, including the high number of officeholders who are term-limited from pursuing reelection.

Open seats tend to be far more competitive than races with incumbents, typically comprising more candidates and resulting in narrower margins of victory. As intended, the public matching system also appears to encourage more candidates to run.

In 2001, an election year similar to 2021, 37 City Council seats, all citywide offices, and four out of five borough presidencies were open due to new term limits imposed and upheld by voters in successive ballot referenda in the early- and mid-nineties. That year 443 candidates filed petitions to run for those offices, and 353 of them participated in the matching funds program.

Somewhat similar dynamics played out two city election cycles ago, when, after the one-time term-limit extension pushed through under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, in 2013 a majority of the City Council faced term limits, as did Bloomberg and most of the borough presidents. The public advocate and comptroller at the time -- Bill de Blasio and John Liu, respectively -- also left their posts to run for mayor, creating additional “open seats.”

In Brooklyn, the borough that will see the most City Council turnover in 2021, 12 out of 16 Council seats will be open because of term limits. Also opening up: 10 out of 14 seats in Queens, two out of three seats on Staten Island, five out of eight seats in the Bronx, and six out of 10 seats in Manhattan. Some of the openings for City Council, Queens Borough President, and other seats could change if there are special elections before the 2021 election hits, potentially introducing new incumbents seeking reelection.

The ballot referendum passed last year expands the public matching funds program from a 6-to-1 match of qualifying contributions to an 8-to-1 match, while it also lowered individual contribution limits. Candidates participating in the CFB program in 2021 will have the option of raising money either under the 6-to-1 rules or the new 8-to-1 rules (in subsequent elections they will only have the option of the 8-to-1 matching system). The referendum also encourages candidates for citywide offices, who tend to rely on larger contributions, to participate in the public matching program by increasing the amount that can be matched in a single donation.

The Campaign Finance Board advocated for those changes before the 2018 Charter Revision Commission, empanelled by the mayor, that put the referendum on the ballot. The reforms are intended to “make running for office more accessible for all New Yorkers” by providing more support for newcomers who may not have access to the same networks of well-heeled donors and political allies that more established politicians have, Matt Solars, director of public relations at the CFB, told Gotham Gazette.

The new landscape in 2021 means the CFB will have to reach more potential candidates and, eventually, pay out more money.

“We estimated that the increases to the maximum public funds payments would lead to about a 30 percent increase” over the cost for the public matching program in 2013, Sollars said. The Board paid out $38.2 million in matching funds to 149 participating candidates that cycle. And the increase could be even higher as the Board expects the new rules to encourage more people to get into local races (it’s also yet to be seen if more challenges to incumbents are waged given the current political climate).

The Board has not yet determined exactly how much it estimates the public matches and operational costs of the program will be for the 2021 cycle.

To reach potential candidates the CFB will rely on its public library partnerships to publicize the trainings and is identifying community-based organizations to collaborate on this and other efforts of NYC Votes, which leads the board’s voter engagement campaigns.

The first event of the five borough tour will take place in Queens on June 8 (at Queens Central Library), followed by June 22 in Brooklyn (Eastern Parkway Library), July 20 at Bronx Library Center, August 3 on Staten Island (at Richmondtown Library; and September 14 in Manhattan (at Schomburg Center).

“From the voter’s perspective, 2021 may seem like a long way off, but for a candidate who may have a goal of running for office and being elected in 2021, it’s right around the corner,” Sollars said. “Our program is really strong and powerful but it also requires a lot of the candidates and they need to know those requirements.”

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

With 500 Candidates Expected for 2021 Election Cycle, Campaign Finance Board Starts Early Outreach Mon, 27 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
More Like a Presidential Year: Report Details Extent of 2018 New York Voter Turnout Boom voters new york city

(photo: Edwin Torres/Mayor's Office)

The tale of the 2018 midterm elections has, so far, been one of groundswells and precedents lending credence to the populist narratives that have come to characterize post-2016 America.

In New York, anecdotes about crowded poll sites, and near-heroic efforts to cast ballots amid the congestion, were ubiquitous during and after the election.

A report, published on Tuesday by NYC Votes and the Voter Assistance Advisory Committee, arms of the city’s Campaign Finance Board, now reveals just how significant the changes were in 2018, when New Yorkers voted for members of Congress, statewide positions including Governor, and members of the state Legislature.

New York typically suffers from voter turnout rates below the national average and, in general, voter participation across the country drops off during midterm elections as compared to presidential election years. But the 2018 midterms in New York City unsettled that arithmetic.

The picture painted by the report, which is mandated by law after an election year, is of a 2018 midterm election that more closely resembles a presidential year than a typical midterm in terms of voter registration and turnout.

According to the report, turnout in New York City hit 39.1 percent, a significant leap of about 10 percent from the previous midterm in 2014 and closing the gap to within 15 percent of the 2016 presidential election. By comparison, the gap between turnout rates in 2016 and 2017, a mayoral election year, was 35 percent.

Even more unusual, 11 neighborhoods in New York City had turnout rates above the national rate. All numbers for November general elections.

Over a million more ballots were cast in 2018 than in 2014, marking the first time New York City has seen a significant uptick in turnout in a midterm election in nearly two decades. At the same time, there was a shift in the behavior of new voters, especially when considering certain demographic factors.

Registered to Participate
While typically there is wide variability in turnout across age groups, in 2018 new voters of all ages turned out at more uniform rates. There were more than 250,000 new voter registrations in 2018, the report says.

Turnout among newly registered voters in the 18 to 29 age range -- the group least likely to vote -- was only 7.3 points below turnout among 30 to 39 year olds -- the group with the highest rate. This same comparison in the 2014 midterms yields a difference of 17.1 percent, though in 2016 the difference was much closer to last year, at 7.5 points.

The behavior of newly registered voters, as described in the Campaign Finance Board report, indicates an electorate that became more intentional as it expanded.

“Generally, in midterm election years, new registrants do not turn out at higher rates than those who registered before the election year,” the report reads. “In 2018, however, voters registered in order to participate in the 2018 midterm elections specifically.”

Last year, turnout was actually slightly higher among newly registered voters than the overall pool of registered voters. This was also the case during the 2016 presidential election when polarizing campaigns drove people to the polls in record numbers. By contrast, the turnout among new registrants in the previous midterm was more than seven points below the overall rate.

This was true at the neighborhood level, too, where the neighborhood registration rate had a stronger positive relationship with neighborhood turnout than it did in the previous midterm.

Naturalization and Voting
The CFB report also points to naturalization as a factor in turnout, although it does not speculate as to why.

A number of the lowest turnout districts identified in the report have a large immigrant population. Neighborhoods like Sheepshead Bay, which has a large Russian immigrant population, and Richmond Hill, a third of whose population is naturalized citizens, have very low turnout rates.

Places like South Ozone Park, whose population is 36 percent naturalized, of which a large portion are English-speaking Guyanese Americans, make it hard to say that the impact of naturalization has more to do with language access than with other factors. Less than 30 percent of South Ozone Park voters cast a ballot. (City Council Member Mark Treyger currently carries a bill to expand language access at the polls, but it is unclear if the Council has jurisdiction given that the city Board of Elections is a state entity.)

Unanswered questions about immigrant communities and voter turnout form something of a problem for a city with such diverse ethnic, linguistic, and political communities.

“We have an obligation to serve voting populations that are underrepresented,” said Matthew Sollars, Director of Public Relations at the CFB.

The report recommends a number of "reforms with immediate impact," including restoring voting rights to people on parole, automatic voter registration, changing the party enrollment deadline, and instant run-off voting, among others intended to expand access to the polls. Some of these changes are being debated in Albany, others by the 2019 New York City Charter Revision Commission.

The Federal Factor
The 2018 elections saw an uncommon confluence of competitive races at the state and federal level, including in June congressional primaries and September state primaries, as well as the November general election.

But the Campaign Finance Board report suggests that not all competitive races are equal post-2016.

Several high-profile primary challenges for the state Senate were part of an effort to unseat members of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), the now defunct group of breakaway Democrats who caucused with Republicans for most of a decade. But despite receiving a bulk of the attention from the media, interested onlookers, and passionate activists, there was not a dramatic difference between voter turnout in those IDC elections and others.

“This shows that the perceived competitiveness of an election does not necessarily lead to increased turnout in that district,” the report states, “and that in this high-profile election, voters turned out regardless of whether they were voting in a competitive election.”

The observation that IDC affiliation had little impact on turnout raises the question of what did. Some other figures in the report indicate that, while the Trump presidency appears to have an impact on federal races across the board, that effect has not fully extended to the level of local politics.

Last year’s midterms looked a lot like the presidential election, but 2017’s municipal elections did not. The report states registration rates in 2018 were “nearly double the number of new registrations the city saw in 2017.”

Most newly registered voters who cast ballots in 2016 did not return in 2017, when the city’s elections were mostly not seen as particularly competitive. “Only about 80,000, or 24.7 percent, of people who registered in 2016 and voted in the presidential election voted in any election during the 2017 citywide election cycle,” the report says.

Still, about 60,000 more voters turned out to vote in the 2017 general election than in the 2013 general election, according to Sollars of the CFB.

Whatever the factors, the report is careful to point out that all of these races “pale in comparison to the surge of voter registrations that occurred in 2016 during the presidential election cycle.”

“In October 2016 alone,” the report says, “124,000 new registrations were processed, which is nearly half of the total number of registrations processed throughout all of 2018.”

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this story has been updated with a paragraph about the report's recommendations that was accidentally left out of the original published piece.

More Like a Presidential Year: Report Details Extent of 2018 New York Voter Turnout Boom Wed, 01 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000