New York City

Democracy vouchers stall, but they could make a comeback

June 21, 2019 Jeffery Harrell
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Publicly funded elections remain a pipe dream in New York City after the Charter Revision Commission voted down a measure to introduce “democracy vouchers” into city elections.

The proposal would have completely removed private donations from elections, opting for public dollars to fund campaigns entirely. Each citizen would be given a “democracy voucher,” worth some portion of funding, and could direct the flow of public money to a candidate of their choosing.

Advocates argue that the system would force politicians to spend less time courting wealthy donors and more time meeting with voters. Since every New Yorker’s share of campaign funds would be equal, candidates would need to spread their time amongst all their constituents, regardless of income level.

The measure’s major backer was Sal Albanese, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams’s appointee to the commission.

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The 15-member panel — convened by the City Council — makes recommendations about the way the city government operates, which will be put to voters in November. Commissioners are appointed by the mayor, each of the borough presidents, the City Council speaker, the city comptroller and the public advocate.

Jonah Allon, a spokesperson from Adams’ office, lamented the commission’s failure to pass the measure.

“Democracy vouchers make a better system in our elections,” Allon said. “All the time politicians spend talking with donors could be better spent talking to actual voters.”

Allon also referenced Seattle’s successful implementation of the democracy voucher program.

“We’ve already seen in Seattle that the voucher program allows for more diversity,” said Allon. “Bringing more people, minorities, women into the political process is what makes our democracy healthy.”

After Seattle implemented public funding through vouchers, the number of unique donors increased by nearly 30 percent. Campaign finance reformers around the country watched with interest, and the program will be on the ballot in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Austin, Texas, this year.

The program’s proponents say the unique funding model makes it easier for first-time candidates to run for office. Removing the need for relationships with wealthy donors would allow a new and diverse pool of New Yorkers to stand a chance during election season.

Although New York vouchers won’t be on the ballot in November, Adams isn’t ready to give up fighting for the reform.

There is momentum behind election reformers in the city after a charter-approved measure dramatically increased the public-matching funds available to candidates last year. The program, which candidates are taking advantage of this election cycle, gives city funds to candidates for each dollar they raise at a rate of eight-to-one.

The Charter Revision Commission has agreed to revisit democracy vouchers after more study goes into the efficacy of the program.

“My hope is that democracy vouchers and other transformational ideas around campaign finance reform are put directly to voters in the future, so they can decide for themselves,” said the borough president in a statement. “We will never fully clean up politics until we take money fully out of politics.”

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