When Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo named public financing of elections as a priority in his State of the State address, many activists cheered. This approach -- along with independent redistricting -- would help increase participation by voters of color, renew trust in the electoral process and force state officials to govern more responsibly.
In January, more than 100 community organizations, faith institutions and advocacy groups from Buffalo to Long Island signed a letter supporting public campaign financing. Soon after, government and business leaders -- among them former New York City Mayor Edward Koch and a former president and chief executive of Seagram's, Edgar Bronfman Sr. -- formed New York Leadership for Accountable Government to support the governor's proposal.
This statewide push for public financing of elections comes not a moment too soon.
Last year, when I joined a team from the immigrant advocacy organization Make the Road New York to mobilize working-class Latino voters in Brentwood, I heard this refrain repeatedly: "Politicians don't pay attention to people like me, whether I vote or not."
Though we knocked on nearly 10,000 doors and ultimately managed to increase turnout in this mostly Latino community, time and again we encountered apathetic voters. Why? Because big money rules our political system and enables politicians to ignore our communities' needs.
A system that supports grassroots participation would be a huge accomplishment, especially now that the redistricting deal compromises the voting power of Long Island's communities of color for at least another decade.
While the African-American and Latino populations of Suffolk County now make up 24 percent of the total population -- up from 17 percent in 2000 -- turnout of voters of color on Long Island remains low. Last year, even with an increase from the last comparable election, turnout of registered voters remained under 20 percent in certain areas like Brentwood where people of color are the majority; overall countywide turnout was 27.5 percent.
There are various explanations for low turnout in these communities, but one key reason is that people feel that politicians won't take them into account, even if they participate. Unfortunately, the current campaign finance rules make that fear a reality.
Candidates rarely court low-income voters of color. With campaign costs rapidly increasing, politicians instead spend time wining and dining wealthy potential donors. For candidates running in poor areas, fundraising usually doesn't even happen in their own districts.
Public financing of elections -- with lower contribution limits and beefed up enforcement and transparency -- can reduce big money's influence. This amplifies the voices of voters like our members. They can't donate in multiples of thousands or even hundreds, but they can contribute a $20 bill, knock on neighbors' doors and organize house parties. A matching mechanism can boost the power of their small donations. New York City's system, for example, gives $6 for every $1 raised in donations of $175 and less. From some candidates' perspectives, that can make a house party with working-class voters as attractive as a fancy gala.
The city's system has increased publicly financed candidates' reliance on smaller donors, opening doors for meaningful participation from working-class communities. A whopping 64 percent of donor dollars to publicly financed candidates originated from people giving $250 or less in the last City Council election. By contrast, only 6 percent of donations to New York State candidates for Senate, Assembly and governor came from this category.
Finally, public financing can help produce better public policy. The 2004 passage of New York City's lead-paint abatement law -- which had stalled for years despite being a major issue in low-income neighborhoods of color -- resulted in part from a City Council that was made more responsive and more racially diverse by publicly financed elections.
In 2009, the public matching system cost New York City $25 million. Nonpartisan experts peg the average cost of a similar statewide system at $25 million to $30 million a year over a four-year cycle. That's a fair price to pay to make sure that the voices of regular voters count -- especially since public financing will likely decrease the influence of big donors who sometimes use wads of cash to help secure wasteful government subsidies and tax breaks.
Cuomo deserves praise for calling for public financing in his State of the State address. In light of the miserable redistricting deal, it's extra important that he keep up the pressure on public financing, and the legislature must follow suit. Doing nothing would cede even more control of our democracy to the richest few.