New York Strikes a Blow Against Citizens United
American politics is awash in big money. Ever since the Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United ruling largely deregulated political spending, the influence of wealthy campaign donors has ballooned. The 2022 elections were the most expensive midterms ever, and megadonors dominated the spending: just a handful of big donor families gave more than all 3.7 million small donors. This influence imbalance drowns out everyday voters’ voices. No wonder so many Americans think politicians are more attuned to their donors’ interests than the public’s.
But we don’t need to accept the status quo, and New York State is showing us how to curtail the influence of big money. Earlier this month, New York State lawmakers passed the state budget for fiscal year 2024, including nearly $40 million for the state’s small donor public campaign financing program. The voluntary program, which launched in November 2022, is the nation’s boldest response to unfettered wealth in our politics. The funding in this year’s budget will keep this groundbreaking program on track for the 2024 election cycle, and the state will be better off for it.
Just like on the national stage, campaigns in New York are dominated by big money. In last year’s statewide elections, the 200 biggest donors to candidates gave almost $16 million — more than all 206,000 of the state’s small donors of $250 or less put together.
A recent Brennan Center analysis shows that the program will upend this narrative and make small donors the most important source of campaign funding in the state. If public financing had been available in last year’s legislative elections, the financial power of small donors could have increased sixfold, from 11 percent to as much as 67 percent. That’s a clear win for democracy.
The voluntary program provides participating candidates a multiple match on small donations they receive from constituents. For statewide races, donations from New York residents of $250 or less are matched six to one. That means a $10 contribution plus the $60 match becomes $70 for the candidate. In legislative elections, donations from district residents are matched on a sliding scale that offers the highest match to the smallest contributions. These innovations make small contributions — and the constituents who make them — far more significant to political candidates.
Participating candidates will be able to fund competitive campaigns by relying on constituents who give modest amounts, rather than spending hours dialing for dollars from big donors and catering to special interests. They will be able to fundraise the same way they campaign: by spending time with voters. This shift will encourage a new and more representative population of donors and strengthen officials’ connections to their constituents. And it will give voters a bigger say in the decisions that affect their lives.
New Yorkers overwhelmingly support small donor public financing. A recent poll found that a majority of New York voters across demographics including race, age, and political party support the state’s small donor matching program. Whether they’re upstate or downstate, Democrat or Republican, New Yorkers are unhappy with business as usual in Albany, and they want an alternative to the dominant sway of big donors.
Public financing of campaigns is the most powerful reform available to counter the outsize influence of megadonors in politics. And it’s a reform on the march. At least 14 states and 24 municipalities across the country have adopted public financing programs. New York’s program is the strongest example we’ve seen enacted so far, and it stands as a model for the rest of the nation to follow in undoing the antidemocratic effects of Citizens United.
At a time when many Americans are frustrated with a political system that favors the wealthiest, reforms like New York’s public financing system show how we can push back. Our democracy will be stronger for it.
Joanna Zdanys serves as Senior Counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. Her work focuses on advancing reforms in the area of money in politics. Zdanys provides policy advice to lawmakers across the country and has testified before state and local legislators.
Before joining the Brennan Center, Zdanys clerked for Hon. LaShann DeArcy Hall in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York. Before her clerkship, Zdanys was a litigation associate in the New York office of Morrison & Foerster LLP.
Zdanys earned her JD from Fordham University School of Law, where she was the editor in chief of the Fordham Urban Law Journal and a Stein Scholar for the Public Interest. She holds a master’s degree in English and comparative literature from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in English from Yale College.
The Brennan Center for Justice is a nonpartisan law and policy institute. We strive to uphold the values of democracy. We stand for equal justice and the rule of law. We work to craft and advance reforms that will make American democracy work, for all.
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