This year is destined to be one that contains too much history. Against the backdrop of a crippling pandemic, New Yorkers have flooded the streets marching for Black lives and demanding foundational change to our criminal justice system. They are marching out of frustration with a system in which few voices truly count.
It is now government’s job to remedy that system. What The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis and others who marched beside them knew is that without the ability to transform passion into legislation, protest risks becoming political theater.
Two budding reforms — automatic voter registration and small donor public campaign financing — will help more New Yorkers be heard at a moment when Americans are demanding meaningful change in the policies that govern them.
Voters in New York have long faced arbitrary obstacles to participation, and the state has among the lowest voter turnout in the nation. But automatic voter registration, like other recently enacted voting reforms, will expand our state’s democracy: the policy could add approximately two million New Yorkers to the voter rolls and diversify the electorate across race, age, and socioeconomic status. As always in our history, voting is inseparable from racial justice. Reducing barriers to registration is a step toward making the vote more accessible. The State Legislature passed the measure last month. Now Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo just needs to sign it.
The promise of automatic voter registration makes me eager to begin my work as a newly appointed commissioner on New York’s Public Campaign Finance Board, the body responsible for overseeing the state’s new public financing program for campaigns for state-level offices. I have worked on criminal justice and voting rights. I believe that money in politics is inextricable from these issues. In 2018, the top 100 donors gave more to New York candidates than all of the estimated 137,000 small donors combined. Providing alternative fundraising that promotes small-donor engagement will empower more people to have a say in the policies that govern them.
Here’s how it works. The voluntary program will match small contributions of $250 or less from constituents at a multiple rate. Statewide candidates will see their contributions matched 6-to-1. Legislative candidates will be eligible for a tiered match ranging from 12 to eight times, depending on the size of a contribution, with the first $50 matched at the highest rate — making donations of even $5 or $10 terrifically valuable. Candidates will be able to run viable campaigns without having to seek out big checks with strings attached. Once elected, officials will be beholden to a broader range of constituents whose priorities can look very different from those of big donors.
Together, the reforms will give New Yorkers a greater stake in their democracy, regardless of background or means, and deepen candidates’ commitment to their constituents.
In the coming months, New York’s Public Campaign Finance Board will begin carrying out these reforms. This means fleshing out the rules, designing software, and creating an accessible system that lets candidates prioritize people, not paperwork. These are not small tasks and will require resources, as well as hard work from myself and my fellow commissioners. It is important that we seize this moment. The disillusionment, frustration, and anger at the ways in which New York has eroded its democracy are warranted but change is on the way. It’s a long time coming.
Ekow N. Yankah is a professor of law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University and a commissioner on the New York Public Campaign Finance Board.