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OpinionOpEd

Weiss: New York voters can reclaim Albany

Photo Credit: TMS illustration by Nancy Ohanian

Many people think New York has some of the best politicians that money can buy. Is it any wonder that we have one of the lowest rates of electoral participation in the country? This is no way to run a democracy.

There are many reasons our once-great state has come to the point where many people have given up on voting, as turnout data gathered by the United States Election Project show. But one of the most obvious is that state legislators raise most of their campaign money from everybody but the people they're supposed to represent. As a result, regular voters feel disconnected from the process and tune out altogether.

The laws that regulate how money is raised and spent for campaigns -- mostly written in 1974 -- are some of the most archaic and outdated in the country. State Senate candidates can receive up to $16,800 from each contributor, and Assembly candidates up to $8,200. And while the national median maximum contribution to a statewide campaign (like governor or attorney general) is $5,000, in New York it's $60,800. Who can give that kind of money? And what do they expect in return?

You guessed it.

Donor data from the last election cycle, analyzed by the good-government organization Common Cause, found that most of the money in our state elections came not from voters, or even the businesses in legislators' districts, but from out-of-district donors such as lobbyists, trade associations, contractors who do business with the state, and corporations in Albany and Manhattan.

Most of New York's elected officials are honest, thoughtful people and we are fortunate to have them. But when your election prospects depend on collecting huge sums from special interests, it makes sense that your donors' voices will ring louder and clearer than others. Those voices tend to set the agenda in Albany, especially with their representatives a constant presence in the hallways and on the phone to legislative offices.

Fortunately, there's a way to change this dynamic: by instituting real campaign finance reform that includes a voluntary system of small donor matching -- a fair elections system.

This solution, modeled on the small-donor matching system that has proved so successful in New York City in the past 20 years, has been embraced by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. The city allows candidates for public office to opt into a matching system that rewards candidates who actually go out and talk to their constituents. If a candidate persuades her constituents to contribute a small but meaningful amount (up to $175), then she is rewarded with matching funds that she can use to pay for advertising, mailings and outreach to voters. The candidate must then abide by strict limits on contributions from corporations, unions and parties, and an overall spending cap.

New York City has shown that small-donor matching is a good investment -- the system is voluntary, but almost every candidate uses it. Small donations have risen dramatically: In 2009, for example, 87 percent of campaign contributions to City Council candidates came from individual donors -- that is, real people.

Cuomo has made passing a bill for a small-donor matching option for state elections a priority. A recent Siena poll of New Yorkers showed that 3 in 4 supported the governor's proposal for public financing and lower contribution limits. And a diverse and growing coalition of organizations and individuals -- New Yorkers prominent in business, the arts, media, philanthropy and other fields -- has stepped forward to support this effort, forming New York Leadership for Accountable Government. We believe that change is not only long overdue, but now achievable.

Instead of lagging behind other states, New York can once again take national leadership in reform that strengthens our democracy. At a time when federal elections are awash with hundreds of millions of dollars from wealthy donors and corporations, New York can become a national example of fair elections.

We need our State Legislature -- the senators and Assembly members who are supposed to represent us -- to get behind the governor's proposal. It's time for them to choose: Do they want to continue business as usual, or do they want to be part of the solution?

Marc N. Weiss, a Queens native, is a media producer who founded "P.O.V." on PBS. He's a member of New York Leadership for Accountable Government.

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