New York should brace for complicated campaign finance system

Governor Cuomo in Utica
Governor Cuomo in Utica
The Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Cuomo in Utica

New York should brace for complicated campaign finance system

Many of the changes likely to be implemented are largely unprecedented
November 24, 2019

The commission tasked with revamping New York’s campaign finance laws and instituting a public matching funds system is poised to create an unprecedented – and complicated – campaign finance program. Simultaneously, although it will not eliminate fusion voting outright, it plans to make it harder for third parties to gain ballot access in the state. The commission is set to hold its final scheduled meeting on Monday, when it is expected to finalize their plan and any other changes to campaign finance law, including campaign contribution limits. 

The commission has a deadline of Dec. 1 to submit a report to the state Legislature and governor. Although it previously said it would release the report on Nov. 27, Commissioner Jay Jacobs suggested to City & State that, while it will be on time, it may now come later than Nov. 27. The recommendations within the report will be binding unless the Legislature returns to Albany in December to explicitly vote them down. There is nothing stopping the Legislature from amending the during the next session, however. 

Here’s what you need to know about the aspects that have largely been decided.

The matching system

New York’s matching system would be unique in a number of ways. Nearly every good-government group, lawmaker and campaign finance expert recommended that the commission, for the most part, follow the model of New York City’s public campaign finance program and institute a 6:1 match for any donation in the state, up to a certain low-dollar amount such as the $175 matched in the city. Commissioners decided to go in an almost completely different direction and institute a convoluted system with little-to-no precedent in the country. Commissioner Jay Jacobs – who is technically not the chair but acts like and is often treated like he is – said that he and his fellow commissioners felt that while the New York City model is good, it is still has its flaws, and they strived to make a better one. Here’s what it will likely look like once finalized. 

  • Only in-district donations will be eligible for public matching funds. New York would be the only place in the nation that would implement this requirement outside of Suffolk County, whose system is not yet in place. 
  • Up to $250 will get matched through a tiered system. The first $50 will be matched at a 12:1 ratio, the next $100 at 9:1 and the final $50 at 8:1. There has been disagreement over whether this tiered, in-district only system would sufficiently aid lower-profile candidates to compete with frontrunners who can bring large-dollar donations. An analysis from the Campaign Finance Institute found it would help them more than a straight 6:1 for statewide donations. The Brennan Center for Justice in its own analysis concluded candidates would be able to raise far less money compared to the 6:1 match. A tiered system has rarely been implemented in other jurisdictions.
  • Statewide races will match at a rate of 6:1 for donations $250 and below.
  • Only donations of only $250 or less will be matched, rather than the first $250 of larger contributions. New York would again be the first to match exclusively small-dollar donations. Jabos said that it will require implementing new technology to help track the amount of money every donor gives, because donors can give multiple times in lesser amounts. If they give even one dollar more than $250 in total during an election cycle, none of the money donated can be matched. The good-government group Reinvent Albany advocated for this.
  • The threshold to qualify for matching funds will also be complicated. By and large, candidates for the state Senate will need to raise $12,000 from 150 in-district donors and candidates for the Assembly would need to raise $6,000 from 75 in-district donors. All donations would still need to be $250 or less. However, to candidates from low-income districts, the dollar amount would decrease by a third to $8,000 for state Senate and $4,000 from the same number of donors. The area median income for every district will be determined, likely from census data, and if it is below the average household income of $62,765 for the state, candidates in that district will be able to qualify at the lower-dollar amount. This does not apply to statewide races. Alex Camarda from Reinvent Albany told City & State that he could think of no other public campaign finance system with this structure for the qualifying threshold. 
  • The amount of public money that candidates will get will be capped per election, rather than per cycle, meaning that any money raised during a primary could not be used during the general election. For the Assembly, that cap will be $175,000, for the state Senate, it will be $375,000 and for the governor, the cap will be $10 million. Camarda said that the sums for the state legislative races would not be enough to compete in the state’s most competitive races and that since most races are competitive only once per cycle, the caps should be more flexible and candidates should be able to use the total amount of public funds they may receive at any point during the cycle.


Third parties

The other big item on the agenda is the fate of third parties in the state. Fusion voting is safe for now. However, the commission is likely to impose new vote thresholds that would effectively kill most minor parties in the state. 

  • Instead of testing the viability of third parties every four years with gubernatorial races, Jacobs as proposed, and the commission is likely to approve a test every two years by including presidential races. 
  • Currently, a party needs 50,000 votes cast for governor on its line to gain party status and automatic ballot access. Although Jacobs had at one point floated 250,000 as the new threshold, the actual vote number will likely be lower, although the commission has not yet determined what specifically it will be. State of Politics reported it will likely be 100,000 or 150,000. Anything much higher than 100,000 votes would still likely eliminate all but the Conservative Party in the state, based on the 2018 election.
  • Adding in the presidential race complicates matters. While a candidate for governor can simply accept the ballot line of a third party, candidates for president do not make that decision. The state party electors who cast the votes in the Electoral College during the presidential election make the decision on behalf of the candidate on whether they will accept other ballot lines. These electors tend to be party insiders and the Working Families Party argued that Democratic electors could arbitrarily decide to kill their party by refusing a cross-endorsement, thus not allowing the WFP to get the necessary votes through fusion.

The other stuff

There’s plenty more to know, and other things that will be hashed out during Monday’s meeting. Here are the most important miscellaneous aspects of what the commission is likely to adopt.

  • The new public campaign finance system will not be overseen by a new agency, like New York City’s Campaign Finance Board, which nearly all good-government groups and other public finance advocates wanted. It will be administered through the state Board of Elections, by beefing up its compliance unit and creating a new disbursement unit and a campaign finance hearing board. The composition of the latter still must be decided.
  • Campaign contributions are still going to be very high. For the state Senate, candidates can receive $10,000 per election cycle, down from $19,300. For the Assembly, the limit will be $5,000, down from $9,400. Despite the decrease, both amounts remain incredibly high compared to most other states with contribution limits. The commission has not agreed on a new limit for the statewide raises, but it will likely be around $15,000 or $16,000 – considerably lower than the nearly $70,000 contribution limit currently in place, but still very high.
  • Independent expenditure and party committees will not be addressed in any fashion by the commission, as they were determined to be outside its legal scope.
  • The new matching system will likely not be implemented until the 2026 election, as Jacobs said every aspect of the program would need to be in place in less than a year if it were to be utilized for the 2022 election, which is technically already underway for statewide races. 
Rebecca C. Lewis
is a staff reporter at City & State.