Testimony to the New York City Campaign Finance Board

On the 2017 Municipal Elections

January 29, 2018

Good morning members of the New York City Campaign Finance Board. My name is Rachel Bloom and I am the Director of Public Policy and Programs at Citizens Union. Citizens Union is an independent and nonpartisan democratic reform organization that brings New Yorkers together to strengthen our democracy and improve our city. Nonpartisan and independent, we seek to build a political system that is fair and open to all – one that values each voice and engages every voter.  We thank you for the opportunity to speak today about the 2017 election cycle.

Election Overview

The municipal elections held in New York City in 2017 included races for City Council, Mayor, Public Advocate, Comptroller, Borough President, District Attorney, and a number of judicial seats. Citizens Union’s election evaluation focused on the city-wide races and select City Council contests. City-wide races were only nominally competitive with incumbents receiving 74% or more of the vote in primaries and general elections (the exception to this is the Mayor's general election race in which he received 66% of the vote).

Races for the City Council were notably uncompetitive with 18 uncontested incumbents running in party primaries, 5 of whom were also uncontested in the general election on November 7. Citizens Union observed that races that included incumbent council members were half as competitive as contests for open seats, with an average of 3 candidates running in the former and an average of 6 candidates running in the latter. In 2017, only 10 City Council races were for open seats (7 due to term limits).

In addition to open seat races being more competitive, they also had a higher rate of participation in the matching funds program last year. Roughly 80% of candidates running for an open seat participated in the matching funds program, compared to 68% of candidates running in races with an incumbent. In those races with no incumbent running, participating candidates received on average $12,000 more in public funds (note: many participating candidates did not receive any public funds). An analysis of the 2013 City Council elections yields similar results. Races for open seats, which were also twice as competitive, had participation rates well above those with an incumbent running (91% in open seat races; 76% in races with incumbents). The average participating candidate in an open seat race received $73,458 in public funds (almost the same average as in 2017; $73,333), compared with $46,419 for the average candidate in a race with an incumbent.

These results may have implications for the next municipal elections. In 2021, 36 council members will be facing term limits. If open seats remain twice as competitive as seats with an incumbent running, 2021 races will place a burden on the campaign finance program not seen since 2001 when a similar number of seats were open due to term limits. (Since then, the public matching funds were raised from a $4-to-$1 to a $6-to-$1 match.)

Campaign Finance Board Sponsored Debates

Citizens Union was a proud co-sponsor of the mandated Campaign Finance Board debates this past election season and we appreciated the opportunity to do so, as we have in the past. Citizens Unionco-sponsored and ran the ticketing for one Mayoral Democratic primary debate as well as general election Mayoral, Public Advocate and Comptroller debates. The Mayoral primary and general election debate were held in front of a sold out audience of over 500 attendees at Symphony Space. The notable thread running through both of the Mayoral debates, particularly in the general election one, was the loud and disruptive audience.

The audience at the general election Mayoral debate was so rowdy that it sparked a New York Times editorial to declare that the loser was “any thoughtful New Yorker” and that “spectators behaved as if they were at a wrestling match…the audience set the tone for a debate that was more truculent than necessary and less enlightening than desirable.”The moderator of the debate turned to address the audience and asked them to control their behavior several times, but the candidates the unruly attendees were cheering for did not contribute to reinforcing the moderator’s entreaties, and at times appeared to be reveling in the chaos.

Another issue that complicated the debates was that candidates were invited to participate in the debates that had not met the qualifications explicitly outlined in Campaign Finance Board guidelines. This led to a selection of participants that appeared to many as, at worst, preferential and, at best, arbitrary. Sponsors were put in the difficult position of having to explain this reasoning to both candidates and the public, and were often at a loss.  Moving forward we make the following recommendations for the 2021 Campaign Finance Board-sponsored debates.

Debate Recommendations

  1. Include language that will require candidates participating in Campaign Finance Board sponsored debates to disavow disruptive behavior from the audience, and pledge to address rowdy supporters during the debate and ask them to immediately stop any troublesome behavior.

  2. Rather than have community and nonprofit groups partner with the media organizations that produce the debates, Citizens Union believes it would behoove the process to select nonprofits and community groups, separate from the media producers. One group could work collectively throughout the whole debate season to serve as a vehicle for distributing debate tickets throughout all five boroughs. This would ideally lead to greater diversity in audience members, and filling of the venue with members of the general public, rather than candidate supporters. 

  3. When candidates that have not met Campaign Finance Board qualifications to participate in Campaign Finance Board sponsored debates, a statement outlining how that decision was made should be given to the public.

Future Reforms

There have been several reforms to the laws that govern the Campaign Finance Board and additional responsibilities placed on campaign finance administrators in recent years, some of which have already been implemented and some that will be in place for the 2021 elections.

Among those reforms that we look forward to seeing implemented are Int. No. 0508, which requires a system of true online voter registration for residents of New York City, and Int. No. 0986, which provides for the earlier disbursement of matching funds to qualifying candidates. True online voter registration would eliminate inefficiencies and reduce chances of human error in the process to register online. An earlier disbursement of matching funds would ensure that voters have a meaningful choice of candidates at the polls, by giving candidates who challenge incumbents the ability to mount competitive races. An earlier payment would allow insurgent candidates to successfully administer designating petitions, and ward off incumbents’ legal challenges regarding petition signatures – a common tactic for removing the competition. We understand that the Board has begun to explore the implementation of these reforms and we look forward to working with you during that process.

In addition, we would like to see the following reforms in place for the 2021 municipal election cycle and look forward to working with Campaign Finance Board staff and members of the City Council on these proposals.

  1. An increase in spending caps to counteract increases in independent expenditures;
  2. Banning the use of public funds for campaign consulting services from firms that also lobby; and
  3. A further reduction in public funds for candidates facing minimal opposition and the enactment of “war chest” restrictions.

Let’s not mince words: the New York City campaign finance system is one of the most comprehensive in the country and should be a model for other municipalities and Albany. It has contributed to more competitive elections and as a result, a more diverse city government. By improving the fundraising opportunities of candidates, especially challengers who may not have the same political connections or access to donors as incumbents, the program helps to curtail the outsized voice of money in our political system. We look forward to seeing the Campaign Finance Board continue this project, essential to shoring up the implements of democracy, and to working with the Board to achieve this lofty goal.