Public Campaign Financing in New York State: Explained

Last month, New York became the second state to institute a system of public campaign financing. It follows an eight-month development process by an independent Public Campaign Finance Commission. While the new system might serve as a model for other states wishing to combat the role of big money in politics and amplify the voices of small donors, organizations like the Campaign Finance Institute question whether it might spell its own doom.

So how does it work?

Under New York’s new system, the state will match donations at a rate as high as 12 to 1 for contributions up to $50. The matching rate depends on a tiered system. Importantly, it is the country’s first system that will only match contributions from donors who live in the legislative district a candidate seeks to represent.

The potential benefits of this plan are massive and numerous:

  • Candidates shunning big money for matching funds will be more accountable to the people of their district.
  • The Campaign Finance Institute estimates that the proportional role of small donors will grow from 14% to over 67% in Assembly races, and from 10% to more than 50% in state Senate races.
  • Matching funds relieve the burden of raising campaign cash for candidates from low-income districts.

That’s not to say New York’s system is without its faults. Critics have expressed concern about the plan’s approach to third-party candidates, which have played a critical role in New York elections thanks to fusion voting. Fusion voting allows a candidate’s name to appear on more than one party’s ballot line and adds the votes on all lines together for the final vote tally. With fusion voting, the 50,000 votes to qualify for ballot access may be earned with votes on the minor party’s line for a major party’s cross-endorsed candidate.

Under the new public campaign financing system, that qualifying vote threshold is harder to reach. To get on the ballot, a party now must have at least 2% of the total votes cast in the previous election for governor or president or 130,000 votes, whichever is greater. Independent nominating petitions were tripled to require 45,000 signatures (or 1% of the last gubernatorial vote, whichever is less), with at least 500 (instead of 100) signatures per congressional district. Among New York’s minor parties, the Conservative Party is the only party that consistently meets these parameters. This leaves the Working Families Party and the Green Party in a very difficult situation. The bigger issue? There’s no proof to support the Commission’s assertion that the old ballot access threshold would violate the budget allotted for public campaign financing.

A little more context…

Public campaign financing isn’t a new phenomenon, even in New York. The Big Apple has had a system of public campaign financing in place since the 1980s. Depending on the office sought, participating candidates can have small donations matched at a rate of 6 or 8 to 1 up to a certain threshold.

According to a December 2018 analysis by the Brennan Center, the 100 biggest donors contributed more to state candidates during the 2018 election cycle that all 137,000 small donors combined, who made up only five percent of state campaign contributions.