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Energetic and Ethical Government

June 5th, 2019

New York needs an energetic and ethical government at all levels. We must make state and city government more transparent and honest, and make major changes to our campaign finance and voting systems to lower the barriers to entry for elected office. Beyond that, we need a competent and focused mayor and city council who will put in the time and effort to ensure that our complex and sprawling city government delivers results for the people of New York.

The Problem

New York’s voter turnout rate is among the lowest nationwide,1 and it’s no wonder: the simple act of voting is not at all simple here. Many states update their rolls when a registered voter interacts with a state agency. But not New York.2 Voters who want to change their party affiliation must do so months before the next election.3 Voters can’t request an absentee ballot without cause—yet.4 And there are just too many elections—each costing taxpayers millions of dollars and time off work.5 On the campaign side, the lack of a public matching system at the state level coupled with sky-high campaign contribution limits make it hard for ordinary people to viably run for office.

On the governing side, the New York State Legislature is totally broken. Members don’t even have to be present to vote.6 And bills that have the support of a majority of legislators often can’t get a vote.7 Negotiations are dominated by the notorious “Three Men in a Room”8—which thankfully includes a woman for the first time in history. Too many bills pass in a mad rush at the end of the legislative session without sufficient public vetting, in the middle of the night, out of the eye of advocates and reporters. Unrelated bills get bundled together to jam legislators into voting yes, either in the state budget or in an aptly-named “Big Ugly” in June. And the speed at which critical legislation hits the floor often leaves little to no time for legislators to understand what they are voting on—let alone for public input.9 Instead of being a place where good ideas go to die, Albany should be a place where good ideas become law.

But, we’ve made some progress. In 2019, new leadership in the New York State Legislature passed a series of reforms10 that good government groups have long advocated, including:

  • Mitigating the notorious LLC loophole, which allowed virtually unlimited, often anonymous corporate contributions to state campaigns. In 2018 alone, Governor Andrew Cuomo raised more than $1.9 million from LLCs.11
  • Beginning the process to allow same-day voter registration and no-fault absentee voting, both of which require amendments to the state constitution. The legislation must be passed again in 2020. Voters must approve both measures in statewide referenda before they can become law.12
  • Consolidating the state and congressional primaries into a single election rather than separate elections.3
  • Enacting an early voting system in time for the 2019 general election.14

We have more work to do. Special interests still have relative free reign in Albany, voting is still too hard, and the barriers are still too high for good people looking to run for office.

What We Must Do

(1) Reform Our Elections

New York State’s elections are notoriously broken. It’s too hard to register to vote, run for office, and actually cast a ballot. Worse, big money is everywhere. As a result, voter turnout in New York is consistently worse than almost every other state15 and too-high contribution limits allow big dollar mega donors and special interests to drown out the voices of everyday New Yorkers. In the absence of a public financing system for state candidates, this flood of campaign cash dramatically constraints who can run and win state office. Candidates who can’t self fund or who lack a built in network of high dollar donors face steep barriers to entry. In order to curb the influence of big money politics across the state, we must elevate the voices of ordinary New Yorkers, both in terms of choosing their elected leaders and lowering the barriers to entry for running for office itself. Finally, we need independent redistricting and fairly drawn districts—not gerrymandered lines that protect entrenched interests and rig the outcome of elections long before the first ballot is cast.

Here’s what better, more inclusive elections means:

Copy the New York City Matching Funds System for State Elections. New York City matches contributions to candidates at a rate of $8 to $1.16 This means if someone donates $175—the maximum matchable amount for a contributor giving to a city council or borough president candidate—that donation becomes $1,400 in campaign funds for the candidate. New York City has instituted its matching funds program to great effect: there has been a significant increase in geographic, racial, and economic diversity of both donors and candidates, while significantly shrinking the proportion of a candidate’s funds that come from wealthy donors.17 We need public financing in state elections to move political power away from mega donors and bring it back to everyday New Yorkers.

Lower Contribution Limits to State Campaigns. New York State has some of the highest contribution limits for state officials in the country.18 A single individual can contribute over $65,000 to statewide offices, $19,300 to state senate candidates, and $9,400 to assembly candidates.19 And according to the Brennan Center, in 2018 the top 100 donors gave more money to candidates than all 137,000 individuals who gave less than $175 combined.20 Candidates for the Assembly can take more money from an individual donor then a candidate for mayor ($2,000)21 and president of the United States ($5,600)22 combined. This system concentrates power and influence with those who can cut the largest checks—those with the greatest privilege. Of the ten biggest individual donors in state races in 2018, all were white, and nine were men.23 By reducing contribution limits to $5600 (matching the federal limit for president, senator, and members of Congress), we can limit the influence of special interests and return at least some power to the rest of us.

Adopt Automatic Voter Registration. In many states, when a registered voter interacts with a state agency—such as the Department of Motor Vehicles—changes to the registrant’s address automatically trigger an update to the voter rolls, eliminating the extra step of re-registering unless voters opt out.24 We must adopt this model in New York and consider expanding beyond the DMV to include other agencies that regularly interact with registered voters while safeguarding privacy.

Adopt Party Registration Flexibility. Under current state law, voters must change their party affiliation months in advance of the next election—the deadline for a likely April 2020 presidential primary will be October 11, 2019.25 The State Democratic Party recently changed its rules to allow party-affiliated registrants to vote in the 2020 Democratic Party presidential primary if they switch registration more than 60 days before the election, and unaffiliated voters to vote if they register as Democrats more than 25 days before the election.26 While this is an inclusive step, the Legislature must codify these changes for elections beyond the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.

Every other state in America either has either open primaries or allows voters to switch parties closer to the date of the actual election.27 New York’s laws are among the most restrictive in the nation and effectively disenfranchise thousands of voters.28 By moving the change of enrollment date closer to the election, unaffiliated voters—who are more likely to be millennials and people of color29—will have a greater opportunity to be involved in the political process.30

Draw District Lines Independently and Fairly. Following the 2020 Census, New York will redraw its legislative district maps, a once-in-a-decade process that has historically led to the State Legislature drawing strongly partisan maps that favor the status quo.31 In 2021, for the first time, an “independent” redistricting commission will draw the maps. But, the Legislature gave itself the authority to toss the independent maps in favor of maps of its own drawing. It’s possible that the commission would sensibly and fairly draw legislative districts and that the Legislature would choose not to adopt those maps.32 We need to strengthen the law to require truly independent maps.

Institute Ranked Choice Voting. In New York City, in large part due to its public financing system, citywide elections are often large multi-candidate fields. The vote is often divided so many ways that no candidate reaches the threshold required in city law to win the primary, triggering a runoff election. But asking voters to go to the polls twice in such a short period of time favors those with the ability to do so, which tend to be wealthier and more privileged voters. For example, in the 2013 Public Advocate race, the primary produced no winner and turnout fell to only six percent in the runoff.33 And, the runoff cost the taxpayers $13 million—more than the entire four-year budget of the Public Advocate’s office at the time.34

Instead, NYC needs ranked choice voting, also known as instant runoff voting, to allow voters to list candidates in order of preference—so they only have to go to the polls once. If no candidate receives a majority of the votes, the last-place finisher is eliminated and their votes are re-allocated to voters’ second choices. This continues until a candidate wins a majority of votes.35

In addition to eliminating the need for costly runoffs, ranked choice systems incentivize voters to choose the candidate who best represents their viewpoint, not necessarily the one who they feel has the best chance of winning.36

(2) Reform How Laws are Passed in Albany

The rules of each chamber give vastly disproportionate power to the leaders of each chamber, at the expense of rank-and-file members.37 Members need more ability to move bills, which need to be considered independently and on the merits, rather than used as leverage and bundled together. Additionally, in the waning days of session, bills fly through both houses of the New York State Legislature at such a rapid pace that members—and the public—have little opportunity to review what they are voting on.38 During the 2017-2018 session, the Legislature passed 65% of all bills after June 1.39 The legislative session is six months long—but a third of its activity happens in the final week. We need to return legislation to committees and require public debate so that Albany becomes the place where New York’s best ideas become law.

Deep Six the “Big Ugly.” Historically, the Legislature has buried controversial or consequential legislation in the state budget, due by April 1, or into a “Big Ugly” in the waning days of the legislative session in June. Intended to jam legislators from raising issues or voting no, these votes happen at all hours of the day and night and without sufficient time for legislators—let alone the press or the public—to understand, let alone discuss and debate, what they are voting on.

Evict the “Three Men in A Room.” Final negotiations on the budget bills and a “Big Ugly” (most consequential legislation, in fact) are handled by the colloquially known “three men in a room”40—which thankfully includes a woman for the first time in history. This undercuts the ability of legislators to meaningfully influence negotiations on important measures on behalf of their constituents.41 Instead, members should openly debate legislation on the merits in the public square, in committees, and on the floors of the Legislature—not have legislation used as leverage in negotiations on unrelated issues.

Prohibit Fundraisers in Albany During Session. Lawmakers routinely raise campaign cash from special interests with business before the State during the legislative session. Lobbyists and special interests ply lawmakers, including the governor, for favorable actions in the halls of the Capitol by day, and donate vast sums to their campaign coffers at fundraisers by night.42 This is special interests peddling influence in plain sight. It’s outrageous, and it has to stop.

Provide Legislation with Majority Support a Vote in Committee. In the 2017-2018 session, members introduced more than 20,000 pieces of legislation. It is not feasible nor practical for every bill to receive a vote. But every piece of legislation that receives support from a majority in committee—demonstrated via cosponsorships—or from an entire chamber should be put to the committee for a vote.

Instead of having an opportunity to garner support and make the case to their colleagues, members’ good ideas for legislation to improve the lives of New Yorkers languish.44 To highlight just one example, the Child Safe Products Act, which would have banned dangerous chemicals from children’s products, failed to receive a vote until 2019 despite being co-sponsored by over 40 senators.45 If members, often with the help of coalitions and advocates, can secure the support of their colleagues, those good ideas should at least have a chance of an up or down vote.

Provide every Bill Voted Out of Committee with a Floor Vote. Once a bill is passed through a committee, it is still up to leadership to decide whether a bill comes to the floor for a vote.46 Passage through a committee is a signal that a bill merits further consideration and debate by the entire legislative body. This doesn’t mean every bill put for a vote has to pass. Advocates and the public can learn a lot from defeated legislation—such as which members to persuade, language to amend, and other problems to solve.

(3) Build Energy, Transparency, and Competency in City Government

As Mayor de Blasio sets his sights on his next office, it’s time for us to set ours on the next mayor. For months, he’s been focused on other things, and we’ve been left to watch as many of his signature initiatives—from the $850 million ThriveNYC program47 to the $773 Renewal Schools “turnaround”48—flamed out at great cost and with little explanation. Now, the mayor’s time and energy are focused farther afield at the exact time we need him here negotiating and finalizing the city’s budget, turning around public housing, and fulfilling his responsibilities as the leader of the greatest city in the world.

We can’t force our mayor to work hard. We can’t force him to want to be here. But we can ask that 2021 mayoral and council candidates pledge to bring a more transparent and energetic government. Here are some proposals for how that next wave of leaders can demonstrate that commitment.

Monthly Public Q&A with the Mayor, by the City Council. Through one-hour, public question and answer forums with the New York City Council, we can ensure a new level of transparency for the mayor and hold the mayor accountable to the city. The speaker of the City Council can moderate the session and call on council members who submit questions ahead of time.

At its basic level, this forum would serve as an accountability tool, but in the hands of a transparent and energetic leader, it can be used to elevate the office of the mayor, and advance a positive agenda for the city.

Monthly One-on-Ones with Key Commissioners. Much of the mayor’s influence comes from the commissioners he appoints and his management of those leaders. But, according to the New York Times, our current mayor “rarely meets with many of his commissioners, according to the schedules, at times making it difficult for department heads to advance new ideas at City Hall, or to inform the mayor about problems at their agencies.”49 The next mayor should commit to meet one-on-one with the commissioners of the ten largest departments at least once per month, and to meet one-on-one with the rest of the commissioners at least twice per year.

Limit Out-of-State/Out-of-City Travel. Every now and then, the mayor must travel out of the city and state to advocate for resources. But not all of these speaking engagements benefit New Yorkers. The next mayor should pledge to ensure those trips are rare and only conducted when they have a clear and predictable benefit to the city.

Increased Presence in City Hall. Our current mayor spends too much of his time outside of City Hall, where the majority of his staff works, and where the press has greater visibility. The mayor should spend more time on the job in a way that’s transparent and predictable for his staff, constituents, and press. Of course, it’s important to get out into New York City’s many communities, but that shouldn’t preclude the mayor from spending significant time at City Hall. That also means the next mayor should avoid unnecessary meetings at Gracie Mansion—which not only require significant wasted travel time for staff and government officials, but also take place out of view from the press and public.

Conclusion

We need a functioning system for electing our leaders. We need a functioning government. And we need leaders in government who actually care about fixing the problems they were elected to solve. The entrenched, special interests who have had their say for far too long don’t need any more support. We do. We pledge to fight every day for a more transparent, energetic, ethical, and accountable government that works on behalf of everyday New Yorkers.

 

Endnotes

1.  Sean Morales Doyle & Chisun Lee, “New York’s Worst-in-the-Country Voting System,” The Atlantic, September 13, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/09/new-yorks-worst-in-the-country-voting-system/570223/.

2.  “Automatic Voter Registration,” National Conference of State Legislatures, April 22, 2019, http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/automatic-voter-registration.aspx.

3.  Leah Libresco, “It’s Far Harder To Change Parties In New York Than In Any Other State,” FiveThirtyEight (blog), April 19, 2016, https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/its-far-harder-to-change-parties-in-new-york-than-in-any-other-state/.

4.  “Absentee and Early Voting,”National Conference of State Legislatures, April 3, 2019, http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/absentee-and-early-voting.aspx.

5.  Lisa W. Foderaro, “Only in New York: Where Primary Day Comes Twice a Year,” New York Times, June 25, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/25/nyregion/new-york-primary-congress-state-federal.html.

6.  Chris Glorioso, Erica Jorgensen, Kristina Pavlovic, and Evan Stulberger, “I-Team: 2 of 3 New York Senators Skip Their Committee Meetings,” NBC New York, February 15, 2017, https://www.nbcnewyork.com/investigations/No-Show-Senate-Albany-House-Investigation-Politics-Attendance-Committee-Vote--413696023.html.

7.  “Albany doing as little as possible,” Newsday, May 21, 2016, http://web.archive.org/web/20160524034514/http://www.newsday.com/opinion/albany-doing-as-little-as-possible-1.11823096.

8.  Seymour P. Lachman, “Now, fix New York’s Legislature: Albany is still a boss-driven ‘democracy’,” New York Daily News, May 1, 2019, https://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/ny-oped-now-fix-new-yorks-legislature-20190501-a4ybexw4vjcarmimytfccruvky-story.html.

9.  David Howard King, “Does 2015 Offer Return of the Albany Big Ugly,” Gotham Gazette, May 27, 2015, http://www.gothamgazette.com/government/5742-does-2015-offer-return-of-the-albany-big-ugly-cuomo.

10.  New York State Senate, “New York State Voting Package,” January 2019, https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/5682616/New-York-State-Voting-Package.pdf.

11.  Vivian Wang, “N.Y. Democrats Vowed to Get Big Money Out of Politics. Will Big Money Interfere?,” New York Times, November 22, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/22/nyregion/campaign-finance-reform-new-york.html.

12.  “Protecting New York’s Democracy: Senate Passes Historic Election Reforms,” New York State Senate, January 14, 2019, https://www.nysenate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/protecting-new-yorks-democracy-senate-passes-historic-election-reforms.

13.  Ibid.

14.  Ibid.

15.  Dan Clark, “New York consistently ranks low for voter turnout,” Politifact New York, February 1, 2018, https://www.politifact.com/new-york/statements/2018/feb/01/andrea-stewart-cousins/new-york-consistently-ranks-low-voter-turnout/.

16.  “What’s New in the Campaign Finance Program,” New York City Campaign Finance Board, 2019, http://www.nyccfb.info/program/what-s-new-in-the-campaign-finance-program-2/.

17.  DeNora Getachew and Ava Mehta, “Breaking Down Barriers: The Faces of Small Donor Public Financing,” Brennan Center For Justice, June 9, 2016, https://www.brennancenter.org/publication/breaking-down-barriers-faces-small-donor-public-financing.

18.  “NEW YORK’S HIGHEST-IN-THE-NATION CONTRIBUTION LIMITS GO UP,” NYPIRG, February 6, 2019, https://www.nypirg.org/pubs/201902/SBOE_Limits_2.6.19.pdf.

19.  “2019 Contribution Limits for New York State,” New York State Board of Elections, 2019, https://www.elections.ny.gov/NYSBOE/Finance/2019ContributionLimits.pdf, pgs 3,5,8,13,16.

20.  Chisun Lee and Nirali Vyas, “Analysis: New York’s Big Donor Problem & Why Small Donor Public Financing Is an Effective Solution for Constituents and Candidates,” Brennan Center for Justice, January 28, 2019, https://www.brennancenter.org/analysis/nypf.

21.  “Limits and Thresholds - 2021 Citywide Elections,” New York City Campaign Finance Board, 2019, https://www.nyccfb.info/candidate-services/limits-thresholds/2021/.

22.  “FEC announces 2019–2020 campaign cycle contribution limits,”, Federal Election Commission, February 7, 2019, https://www.fec.gov/updates/fec-announces-20192020-campaign-cycle-contribution-limits/.

23.  Jordan Laird, “The largest donors to New York candidates,” City & State  New York, November 1, 2018, https://www.cityandstateny.com/articles/politics/campaigns-elections/largest-political-donors-new-york-candidates.html.

24.  “Automatic Voter Registration,” Let NY Vote, 2019, https://drive.google.com/uc?export=download&id=1ks03x_5bHcRFv6lhzBt9vl8QiYBB5ZOA.

25.  Ross Barkan, “Why Bernie Sanders Supporters Are Eager To Change NY’s Peculiar Party Enrollment Deadline,” Gothamist, May 3, 2019, http://gothamist.com/2019/05/03/ny_voter_party_enrollment.php.

26.  David Lombardo, “New York Democrats approve more accessible presidential primary,” Albany Times Union, May 22, 2019, https://www.timesunion.com/news/amp/New-York-Democrats-approve-more-accessible-13872876.php.

27.  “Flexibility to Change Party Affiliation,” Let NY Vote, 2019, https://drive.google.com/uc?export=download&id=1P_NmZtocP07lIXp02BFixJE9gnxnzMIG.

28.  “Let NY Vote Priorities,” Let NY Vote, 2019, https://letnyvote.org/priorities.

29.  Renata Sago, Ben Markus, and Jude Joffe-Block, “Sick Of Political Parties, Unaffiliated Voters Are Changing Politics,” NPR, February 28, 2016, https://www.npr.org/2016/02/28/467961962/sick-of-political-parties-unaffiliated-voters-are-changing-politics.

30.  “Party Enrollment Flexibility,” Let NY Vote, 2019, https://letnyvote.org/enrollment.

31.  Thomas Kaplan, “Albany Redrawing Political Map With Old Lines of Thought,” New York Times, March 12, 2012, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/13/nyregion/new-york-legislators-propose-a-revised-redistricting-plan.html.

32.  Samar Khurshid, “New York’s New, Untested Redistricting Process Set to Unfold After 2020 Census,” Gotham Gazette, April 12, 2019, https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8445-new-york-s-new-untested-redistricting-process-set-to-unfold-after-2020-census.

33.  “2013 Public Advocate runoff,” NYC Election Atlas, Accessed May 28, 2019, http://www.nycelectionatlas.com/maps.html#!2013runoffStatic.

34.  Kate Taylor, “City Councilwoman Is Chosen in the Democratic Runoff for Public Advocate,” New York Times, October 1, 2013, https://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/02/nyregion/letitia-james-is-chosen-in-democratic-runoff-for-public-advocate.html.

35.  “Ranked Choice Voting / Instant Runoff,” FairVote, Accessed May 28, 2019, https://www.fairvote.org/rcv#how_rcv_works.

36.  Betty Keller, “Pros and Cons of Instant Runoff (Ranked Choice) Voting,” League of Women Voters of Vermont, Accessed May 27, 2019, https://my.lwv.org/vermont/article/pros-and-cons-instant-runoff-ranked-choice-voting.

37.  Seymour P. Lachman, “Now, fix New York’s Legislature: Albany is still a boss-driven ‘democracy’,” New York Daily News, May 1, 2019, https://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/ny-oped-now-fix-new-yorks-legislature-20190501-a4ybexw4vjcarmimytfccruvky-story.html.

38.  David Howard King, “Does 2015 Offer Return of the Albany Big Ugly,” Gotham Gazette, May 27, 2015, http://www.gothamgazette.com/government/5742-does-2015-offer-return-of-the-albany-big-ugly-cuomo.

39.  “New York Legislative Datasets,” LegiScan, Accessed May 28, 2019, https://legiscan.com/NY/datasets.

40.  Seymour P. Lachman, “Now, fix New York’s Legislature: Albany is still a boss-driven ‘democracy’,” New York Daily News, May 1, 2019, https://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/ny-oped-now-fix-new-yorks-legislature-20190501-a4ybexw4vjcarmimytfccruvky-story.html.

41.  “The ‘Three Men in a Room’ and Millions Outside,” March 30, 2017, https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6842-the-three-men-in-a-room-and-millions-outside.

42.  J. David Goodman, “9 Fund-Raisers in 1 Night: Democrats Vow Reform in N.Y., but Money Still Flows,” New York Times, March 20, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/20/nyregion/lobbyists-albany-legislature.html.

43.  “New York Legislative Datasets,” LegiScan, Accessed May 28, 2019, https://legiscan.com/NY/datasets.

44.  “Albany doing as little as possible,” Newsday, May 21, 2016, http://web.archive.org/web/20160524034514/http://www.newsday.com/opinion/albany-doing-as-little-as-possible-1.11823096.

45.  Scott Waldman, “Supporters see progress on child-products regulation,” Politico, April 8, 2015, https://www.politico.com/states/new-york/albany/story/2015/04/supporters-see-progress-on-child-products-regulation-021299.

46.  Seymour P. Lachman, “Now, fix New York’s Legislature: Albany is still a boss-driven ‘democracy’,” New York Daily News, May 1, 2019, https://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/ny-oped-now-fix-new-yorks-legislature-20190501-a4ybexw4vjcarmimytfccruvky-story.html.

47.  Amanda Eisenberg, “With opaque budget and elusive metrics, $850M ThriveNYC program attempts a reset,” Politico, February 27, 2019, https://www.politico.com/states/new-york/albany/story/2019/02/26/with-obscure-budget-and-elusive-metrics-850m-thrivenyc-program-attempts-a-reset-873945.

48.  Eliza Shapiro, “$773 Million Later, de Blasio Ends Signature Initiative to Improve Failing Schools,” New York Times, February 26, 2019,  https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/26/nyregion/renewal-initiative-de-blasio.html.

49.  William Neuman, “New York’s Vanishing Mayor,” New York Times, December 5, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/05/nyregion/de-blasio-nyc-mayor-city-hall.html.