How to improve democracy? Here’s the amazing story of how one leader in one small agency brought lasting change to the system of democracy in America’s largest city.
This week, in a small and relatively obscure NYC agency, a giant is retiring. Amy Loprest leaves behind a legacy of lasting improvements in a cornerstone of New York City’s democracy, our vaunted campaign finance system.
Amy Loprest spent 16 years as Executive Director of the NYC Campaign Finance Board. I had the privilege of working with Amy as a Board Member from 2009 to 2018. The work I did with Amy counts among the greatest accomplishments of the careers of many who worked with her, including myself. Our achievements would have been impossible without her leadership, shared vision, and courage, so I want to share my story.
In 2008, I joined the Board as a non-lawyer with no experience in campaign finance or elections, but I had extensive experience in technology. In those days, Board meetings would go on for hours, sometimes over multiple days per week. Very quickly a pattern emerged where alleged violations concentrated in arcane rules about credit card contributions.
“If Amazon can process millions of dollars in credit card transactions per month, why can’t we process thousands?,” I asked the Board. “In this day and age, it makes no sense.” Amy agreed. The audits occupied countless hours of CFB staff time. Even worse, the bureaucracy threatened to tarnish the CFB’s reputation among potential candidates, dampening participation. And in discussions in Albany, it was an impediment for those arguing for a statewide matching funds program.
Many leaders can see the problem. Great leaders often have one of two essential traits. First, a truly transformational leader will see the necessity of what needs to be done and will put their careers on the line. Second, such a leader will make space for their staff to step up and take ownership of their parts. Amy did both.
So we decided to build a credit card processing platform now known as NYC Votes Contribute. And we made the audacious bet that we could build compliance into the back-end to eliminate violations.
Amy’s executive buy-in and our collective vision attracted a dream team of tech industry volunteers: software consultancy Pivotal Labs (now VMWare Tanzu Labs), design consultancy Method, and my own tech incubator, Tipping Point Partners. With Amy’s support, Eric Friedman led the work inside the agency and orchestrated internal and external teams building the product.
We didn’t stop there. At the time we offered little for an important and growing audience seeking election information on the go, so we launched a pioneering effort to engage them. At Eric Friedman’s urging, we created the NYC Votes brand and used it for NYC’s first mobile voter guide.
Matt Sollars conceived of the “I Voted” sticker design competition that was adopted by the NYC Board of Election and is now emulated nationally. Onida Coward Mayers’s team conceived of the NYC Youth Poet Laureate program in partnership with Urban Word to connect voting with new audiences. We launched the NYC Votes program as a pilot in the 2013 citywide elections and fully released it in the 2017 elections.
Last year, 94% of the record 383 candidates (including myself) running used NYC Votes Contribute, which handled one of every three private dollars raised.
There are many critical contributors to recognize in addition to those I’ve already mentioned. I apologize in advance for those I’ve certainly omitted. Thanks to Rob Mee, Edward Hieatt, Josh Knowles, Michael Schubert, Sam Coward, Joe Masilotti, David Lipkin, Mehera O’Brien, Andi Cheung, Narguess Noshirvani, Rusty Monro, Baykal Askar, Michael Carlson, Samantha Perez, Chris Dragotakes, Daniel Grippi, Evan Goodberry, Maria Rabinovich, Joe Leo and the Def Method team.
It also deserves mention that Amy’s day job included heroic efforts leading the staff in keeping the system running during Superstorm Sandy, which landed just before Election Day 2012. And then through the COVID pandemic. Amy’s leadership in adapting NYC’s regulatory oversight to independent spenders unleashed by SCOTUS’s awful Citizens United ruling will never be forgotten.
Please join me in expressing gratitude for her leadership and in wishing Amy well in her next chapter.