The Demand Democracy PlatformFor a Brand New Albany
New York’s electoral process is broken. The lack of competition in most races has led to complacency and, increasingly, corruption in New York state politics. Moneyed interests – powerful individuals, corporations, and other interest groups – have control, and the average citizen has little influence and representation in government. Public trust in government has been eroded not just by politicians’ indictments and prison terms, but by the completely legal ways that wealthy interests drive Albany’s policy choices. Exacerbating this problem, New York’s voting laws are archaic; we need to modernize our system to ensure that all New Yorkers who want to participate in the state’s elections can have their voices heard and their votes counted.
The key to reforming Albany is comprehensive reform of our elections, with a focus on giving everyday New Yorkers influence and an opportunity to be more involved. Together, the changes listed below would increase the voice of all New Yorkers in state policy decision-making
Publicly Funded Elections
Once elected officials get into office, they become fixed in a self-perpetuating system: the only way to ensure reelection is to make policy decisions based on those donors’ interests, to the detriment of constituents who can’t afford to pay for political access. Average New Yorkers – particularly people of color and underserved voters – are often shut out or ignored.
New York must establish a small donor matching system for campaigns — modeled on New York City’s public financing system. Such a system would match contributions from New Yorkers up to a certain amount with public dollars. It would ensure that there is a system to monitor campaigns’ use of public funds, and that all campaigns promptly return unspent public funds at the end of the campaign.
Among other benefits, a small donor matching system would reduce barriers to entry that prevent everyday New Yorkers from running for office; encourage candidates to focus on raising money from and connecting with prospective voters, rather than relying on a few wealthy donors to fund their campaign; increase and diversify citizen participation in the electoral process as measured by campaign contributions; and incentive elected officials to better represent and be more responsive to the interests of their constituents.
Campaign Finance Reforms
New York’s loophole-ridden campaign finance system allows special interests to dominate political discourse through nearly unlimited and often secret contributions to officeholders and their challengers. Sky-high contribution limits, a lack of disclosure about the source of political contributions, and lax enforcement of campaign finance laws all contribute to a system that creates the perception that money buys legislative favoritism.
Due to the New York State Board of Election’s improper interpretation of New York State Election Law, limited liability companies (LLCs) are classified as individuals rather than “corporations” or “partnerships,” which is how they are treated under federal law. While most corporations can give no more than $5,000 every year, each LLC can give substantially more than other similar corporate structures. The practical result has been that individuals can use multiple LLCs to avoid campaign finance limits altogether. Compounding the problem is that LLCs do not have an obligation to disclose the identity of their members or officers, making it nearly impossible to know the true source of contributions. Closing the LLC loophole is a concrete solution to ensure that a few special interests do not side-step contribution limits and disclosure rules put in place to protect the integrity of New York’s elections and government.
New York State’s loopholes and sky-high contribution limits encourage politicians and parties to seek huge sums from only the wealthiest contributors. We need to lower contributions limits for candidates and committees and limit transfers between committees to implement a check on how much money special interests and large donors can use to influence elections. Doing so will allow citizens to show their political support without being extorted for unlimited donations.
New York State’s enforcement of campaign finance laws is notoriously lax, leading to corruption and abuses of the system. New York needs a new, truly independent oversight and enforcement body with strong effective responsibility for all campaign finance law administration, including public financing and sufficient funds to perform its mission well.
Modernize Elections and Voting
New York largely relies on a paper-based system to register voters, except at the DMV which has harnessed proven technology to modernize its voter registration processes. All other state agencies and the county boards of elections statewide use paper registration methods that are rife with error, which open the door for registration inaccuracies, including those that could result in improper registration purges.
New York should enact automatic, permanent voter registration to sign-up every eligible New Yorker to vote. In practice this would mean that when an eligible citizen gives information to the government – for example, to get a driver’s license, receive Social Security benefits, apply for public services, register for classes at a CUNY or SUNY university, or become a naturalized citizen – she will be automatically be registered to vote unless she chooses to opt-out. It would eliminate additional step of a paper form or process. If the voter does not decline, her information would be electronically and securely sent to election officials to be added to the rolls. And the voter would receive a receipt and confirmation of registration. Enacting automatic, permanent voter registration would save government money, increase the accuracy of the voter registration rolls, and curb the potential for fraud and protect the integrity of New York’s elections.
While New York has an online voter registration system, it is only accessible to those New Yorkers with a DMV-issued identification, which excludes many New Yorkers. We must expand the online registration system to ensure that all New Yorkers can register, check, and update their registration records through a secure and accessible online portal.
New York’s elections should be free, fair and accessible to all citizens. New Yorkers lead complex, busy lives and confining voting to a single 8 – or 12-hour period is simply not reflective of how most voters live. Implementing early voting is a crucial way to modernize New York’s voting. Embarrassingly, New York is one of only 13 states that does not allow for some form of early voting. In New York, only those voters who have a valid excuse can vote via absentee ballot. Those narrow excuses are that the voter: will be absent from their country on Election Day; have a temporary or permanent illness or are the primary care giver of one or more individuals who are ill or physically disabled; is a patient or inmate at a Veterans’ Administration Hospital; or is detained in jail awaiting Grand Jury action or confined in prison for an offense other than a felony.
Early voting would provide flexibility and convenience for the voter; reduce the administrative burden of the Election Day rush; keep elections safe and secure; and bring New York’s antiquated voting process into the 21st century.
Expand and Protect the Vote
New York must restore voting rights to New Yorkers on parole. New York’s current law disenfranchises individuals on parole but not on probation. This outdated law and its disparate effects are rooted in New York’s Jim Crow past. Nearly three-quarters of the 40,000 disenfranchised citizens on parole are African American or Latino.
Restoring voting rights to those on parole would eliminate local election officials’ administrative confusion with administering the law as they often have a hard time keeping the law straight; incorrectly stating that people on probation are ineligible to vote. This kind of misinformation chills political participation even among eligible would-be voters.
Restoring a person’s right to vote once they’ve paid their debt to society gives them an opportunity for redemption and a chance to be full members of their community. Amending the law would also serve public safety. Voting is an important pro-social activity that can aid citizens in their transition out of incarceration and into productive and engaged roles in their communities.
States are pressured to purge their voter rolls of ineligible voters or duplicate records. But they often do so without adequate protections for eligible voters. We need a full investigation of the purging of voter rolls and new training, support and oversight for boards of elections to make sure that voters are never unfairly removed from the rolls again.
Serious Ethics Reforms
Since 2000, 32 legislators have been charged with or convicted of corruption. Yet the legislature and the Governor have not acted boldly to enact comprehensive ethics reform. Instead, Albany leaders have enacted piecemeal reform that does not get to the source of the problem, but rather its symptoms.
These unprecedented scandals are directly linked to New York’s lax ethics laws and oversight systems. The legislature must enact several key reforms, which would go a long way to restoring the public’s confidence in Albany’s elected officials and ensure that such officials are accountable to the public they were elected to serve:
- State elected officials convicted of felonies should no longer be able to benefit from receiving an automatic taxpayer funded pension. Mandate that elected officials convicted of corruption forfeit their pensions;
- Campaign funds should not serve as a personal slush fund after Election Day. There must be clear and unambiguous statement about what constitutes impermissible personal use of campaign funds; and
- While some measures have been enacted to make elected officials’ outside income less opaque, more can be done. There must be absolute transparency of the sources of outside income.