For New York statewide voters, this Election Day, November 6, 2018, may be the most important in decades. I wrote about it in the Gotham Gazette, “Can Democrats win the state Senate? How progressive is Cuomo? New Yorkers are about to find out” and more recently on Medium , “Reading the Tea Leaves — Will New York’s Senate Flip Blue for the Third Time in a Century?”
For New York City voters, the ballot will offer three proposals on campaign finance, civic engagement and community boards that would amend the City Charter, which is akin to the City’s Constitution. People I hold in the highest esteem have strong views on both sides, notably NYC Council Member Brad Lander, Deputy Leader for Policy and Co-Founder of The Progressive Caucus of the NYC Council (“Yes”) and Gale A. Brewer, Manhattan Borough President (“No”). This is for my friends who asked how I plan to vote and why.
Two simple sets of questions frame my analysis:
First, “Why are these necessary? What wrongs would these right? Can we measure what success would mean?” The three proposals fail these tests through my eyes. So I will vote “No.”
Second, “What’s the harm in these?” The risks don’t amount to a hill of beans in the grand scheme of New York City’s problems. So this post represents my only energy expended in opposition.
My perspective is informed by my nearly nine years on the Board of the New York City Campaign Finance Board (July 2009 to February 2018) and my five years as the founding Chair of the New York City Voter Assistance Advisory Committee. I conceived and led the public-private technology projects now known as NYCVotes and Voting.nyc. This work won awards from Citizens Union, Common Cause New York, and the NYC Public Advocate and extensive media coverage.
#1: Campaign Finance
“…take direct aim at persistent perceptions of corruption associated with large campaign contributions, while simultaneously boosting incentives for campaigns to reach out to small donors.” (Final Report, p. 20)
What‘s the fix?: 1. Lower contribution limits. 2. Increased public match for small dollar contributions. 3. Earlier eligibility for matching funds.
What‘s’ success?: “…eliminate the large contributions that create opportunities for quid pro quo corruption or its appearance.” (Final Report, p. 30)
- Where there’s smoke, is there fire? The Final Report offers no evidence of corruption stemming from the existing campaign finance system, which it also effusively praises.
- A system for identifying potential quid pro quo corruption already exists. It’s called the Doing Business Portal. Every vendor contract with the City is required to be part of this database, along with the individuals who own vendor companies.
- The proposed solution doesn’t fit the stated problem. Improvements to the Doing Business Portal can vastly increase transparency around the connection between vendor contract awards and political contributions. What’s the degree of compliance with data submissions? What’s the lag time between contract award and data submission? Can the City automate the connection between the CFB campaign contribution system to enable near-real-time, automated disclosures.
- Smaller campaign contribution limits are a good thing.
- Increased public match makes sense, but can also incentivize potential bad actors.
- Earlier matching funds eligibility addresses a real problem. The current system provides a relatively small disbursement in 3 months before the primary. The first large disbursement generally occurs weeks before the primary.
- The proposal can also be enacted legislatively.
#2: Civic Engagement
“…strong public sentiment that it is important to explicitly embed the values of civic participation in the Charter, and to move toward focusing, integrating and expanding the City’s efforts to engage all its residents in civic life.” (Final Report, p. 48)
What‘s the fix?: 1. Create a 15-person Civic Engagement Commission with eight members appointed by the Mayor, the remainder by the Speaker and the Borough Presidents. The Mayor would designate from the Mayor’s appointees a Chair, who would also serve as Executive Director and be paid. 2. Expand participatory budgeting citywide. 3. Provide technical and other assistance to the community boards. 4. Support and partner with community-based organizations in their civic engagement efforts. 5. Establish a program of poll-site interpreters.
What‘s’ success?: 1. Increase number of participants and projects for participatory budgeting. 2. Distribution and utilization of poll-site interpreters. 3. Deliver resources for community boards.
- What is “civic engagement” actually and do New Yorkers have a problem here? The Final Report defines it by what it’s not, “declining levels of public trust, confidence, and participation in civic institutions and activities,” but then continues to say that New Yorkers already have a lot of it, by “contribut[ing] to civic life in ways that demonstrate a deep connection to each other and the communities.” (Final Report, p. 47)
- So if improvements are needed in something that New Yorkers already do well, but somehow a new governance structure is needed for that thing, whatever it is, I always wonder who benefits from the design and the operational effort and costs. One thing is clear: this new Commission is directly linked to Proposal #3 by giving the Mayor direct influence over the Community Boards. If Proposal #3 fails to pass, then Fix #3 is rendered meaningless.
- I’m surprised there’s no discussion of the role of civics education.
- I’ve been a fan of participatory budgeting since its inception, for which Brad Lander deserves many kudos. Expanding this to the entire city is a terrific idea. It’s a big enough effort that it deserves its own dedicated staff. If this proposal were limited to this, I would be a huge “YES.” Like with the small dollar aspects of campaign finance, this could also be accomplished legislatively.
- Poll-site interpreters are a great idea. So is early voting. Electronic poll books. Multi-day voting. A real online voter registration system. What is common to all these ideas? They are controlled by the state’s Board of Elections, which sits over the city Board of Elections. Let’s say Dems take control of the state Legislature for the first time as I wrote about, voting reforms will almost certainly be passed, precipitating a necessary battle with the Board of Elections, whose Board is 50% Democrat, 50% Republican as established in the State’s Constitution.
- Community-based organizations would certainly appreciate financial support and other partnership assistance. But how would you measure this? Without a clear way to measure this, it’s easy to claim success and avoid failure.
#3: Community Boards
“…some community boards do not always live up to their potential to transmit and amplify the voices of all members of the community.” (Final Report, p. 48)
What‘s the fix?: 1. Impose a limit of four two-year terms. 2. Require a more uniform and transparent appointment process. 3. Provide technical and other assistance to the community boards from the Civic Engagement Commission. 4. Require DOITT to provide technical assistance for community board websites and online community board applications.
What‘s’ success?: 1. More diverse representation on the Community Boards. 2. Fulfilling a reason for the Civic Engagement Commission to exist. 3. Better websites. 4. Online applications for new members.
- How many New Yorkers actually know what Community Boards actually do? Or that they even exist? Is it possible for Community Boards to fulfill their role if that community is unaware and uninvolved?
- I agree with calls for transparency, but these often come in the wake of something gone wrong, which begs the question, “What’s gone wrong?” I personally have lots of questions about the community boards and real estate developers seeking to enlarge projects. How rigorous is the disclosure of conflicts? Can this be tied into a system like the Doing Business Portal for automated conflict reporting?
- Transparency today means technology for document management, collaboration, streaming video of meetings, and the digital distribution of publicly available agendas, minutes and meeting materials. The DOITT requirement goes part of the way there.
- I support transparency with respect to Board members, along with the requirement that they represent a district’s diversity.
- Proposal #2 creates the opening for the Mayor to influence Community Boards, potentially diminishing the power of Borough Presidents and City Council members. Proposal #2 can be defeated with minimal impact to Proposal #3.
Art Chang is a writer, thinker and strategist at the intersection of technology and government. On Twitter @achangnyc.