“Disparities that we normally see in campaign fundraising were not apparent this time around in New York City,” said an analyst at the Brennan Center, which compared self-identified gender and race information for each candidate in a competitive June primary with their campaign finance records.
Almost all—97 percent—of the record-breaking 39 women and Black, Latino, and Asian New Yorkers elected to the New York City Council earlier this month raised money through the city’s public financing program, which enables participating candidates to have their small-dollar local donations matched 8-to-1 with public money, according to a new analysis of primary election data from the Brennan Center.
New York’s “robust” public matching funds program is partially responsible for the dramatic shift in representation in the incoming Council, the report’s authors said. The new Council, which will take office in January, will be the most racially diverse it has ever been, and women are expected to increase their representation in the lawmaking body to at least 59 percent.
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After comparing self-identified gender and race information for each candidate in a competitive June primary with their campaign finance records, analysts at the Brennan Center noted a “striking” pattern, said Hazel Millard, a campaign strategist there who studies money in politics.“Disparities that we normally see in campaign fundraising were not apparent this time around in New York City,” Millard explained.
Leveling the playing field
On average, Millard told City Limits, male and female candidates in these contests raised similar amounts, with women raising four percent more than their male counterparts.
The disparity typically observed between total funds raised by candidates of color and white candidates appeared to disappear, too, according to the report, with Black, Latino and Asian candidates raising two percent more than white candidates.
“If you look at traditional campaign finance systems, like what we have at the federal level and a lot of places across the country, that sort of parity is pretty unheard of,” Millard said. “It was really striking for us as we were pulling these numbers together to see that that divide wasn’t there.”
This balance in fundraising “held true not just for council candidates overall, but also in one-to-one contests when the top two candidates in a given district were of different races or genders,” according to the report.
The city’s public funds program, started in 1989 and expanded from a 6-to-1 to an 8-to-1 match after a 2018 ballot referendum, is administered by the New York City Campaign Finance Board. It’s one of the longest-running programs of its kind in the nation, predating similar initiatives, like those in place in Washington D.C., San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
The city’s primary and general elections this year were the first to follow the battery of campaign finance changes passed by the City Council following the 2018 Charter revision. In addition to increasing the matching rate on contributions for local donors, reforms to the matching funds program included tightening the contribution limit for competitive Council races from $2,850 to $1,000 and increasing the max matchable amount for citywide offices.
City Council candidates who opt into the public funds program are required to raise at least $5,000 in donations within the district they are running in. They also must adhere to strict spending limits and submit a financial disclosure statement to the city Conflicts of Interest Board.
The matching funds program “amplifies the voice of average New Yorkers in city elections by matching their small contributions with public funds,” says the Campaign Finance Board (CFB).
“By increasing the value of small-dollar contributions, the program reduces the possibility and perception of corruption from large contributions and unlimited campaign spending, and encourages citizens from all walks of life to run for office,” the CFB adds.
Of course, other changes to city elections may also have influenced the outcomes in this year’s Council primaries, the experts at the Brennan Center said. Term limits, part of city law since 1993, and the transition to a ranked-choice voting system during the primary have also helped flatten traditional obstacles on the political playing field.
“Research on term limits and ranked-choice voting, however, shows the policies do not always have the effect some proponents seek of increasing diversity and representation, sometimes resulting in the opposite,” the experts note.
“Indeed, the historical barriers that women, people of color, and particularly women of color face in traditional fundraising have impeded their ability to compete even for open seats,” they added.
‘What else can and should New York do?’
More reforms could follow, too, strengthening New York’s position as a model for other jurisdictions, election experts told City Limits.
“What else can and should New York do?” said Chisun Lee, deputy director of election reform at the Brennan Center.
“I think we’ve seen—especially in the wake of the two state ballot proposals that were meant to open access to voting—that New York City and State have a long way to go to improve administration of elections,” Lee said, including voter education and the persistent problem of low voter turnout.
Voters on Nov. 2 shot down two ballot proposals that experts say would have strengthened the state’s voting rights: One that would have done away with a requirement that citizens be registered to vote at least 10 days before an election, paving the way for same-day voter registration; and another to make it easier for New Yorkers to vote by mail, allowing them to request an absentee ballot without needing to provide an excuse, like illness or being out of town.
The loss at the polls has stoked further infighting within the Democratic Party: On Monday, a dozen Assembly Democrats called for a motion of “no confidence” in Democratic committee chair Jay Jacobs, saying he “made no investments to promote these important proposals, while Republican party leaders toured the state rallying against them, investing more than $3 million which was funneled through the state’s Conservative Party.”
“New York Senate Democratic Leadership requested assistance from our State Democratic party with the ballot proposition campaign, to no avail,” they wrote. “Our Democratic leaders in Congress and across the country are fighting for voting rights, but in our own state, our Democratic leader was either unaware that these proposals might not pass, or unconcerned.”
That same day, state Sen. Zellnor Myrie of Brooklyn, chair of the Senate Elections Committee, released a report detailing findings from a months-long series of statewide hearings on improving New York’s election administration system.
This followed the embarrassing June admission that the New York City Board of Elections accidentally tabulated more than 100,000 test ballots in its count of votes in the primary for mayor.
Myrie, a Democrat, and the Committee recommended a sweep of structural and operational reforms, including restructuring the city Board of Elections, changing the relationship between the state and local boards of elections, and overhauling the selection processes and accountability structure for election commissioners.
“Elections Commissioners are entrusted with significant responsibility, yet there are essentially no standards in place for their qualifications or training,” the committee wrote in the new report. “Commissioners are appointed by their respective political parties and may only be removed by the Governor, a provision that has never been used. There are no standards for conflicts of interest, or opportunities for the public to understand how and why Commissioners are appointed to their roles.”
The committee recommends the legislature reform the selection process and develop conflict of interest rules, including barring a commissioner or deputy commissioner from contemporaneously serving as an elected or political party official and banning candidates for local office from employment at a board of elections overseeing a contest they are in.
Lawmakers also recommended “public confirmation hearings and reviews of qualifications prior to selection and appointment of Commissioners,” plus changes to the law that would allow these officials to be removed for cause by either the state BOE or the local government.