Sure Winners Set To Get Subsidy They Don’t Need
Henry J. Stern
There are two issues relating to the September 29 runoff election that we would like to discuss today.
One was that very few people voted. Sam Roberts discusses that situation in today’s Times: CITY OF 8 MILLION WAS A GHOST TOWN AT THE POLLS. The story appears on pA1of the New York edition of the Times, which is now published nationally, so there are different editions for different regions of the country.
In “DRIZZLE OF VOTERS: With An Idea to Save $15 Million”, on September 30, we recommended Instant Runoff Voting, an idea that dates back to 1870. Under IRV, voters pick their first and second choices for each office. If no one gets 40% (or any predetermined percentage), the last place finisher is eliminated and his votes redistributed to his supporters’ second choices. This is done until one candidate hits 40%. That way 1) the city will save the $15 million or so it takes to run a primary, 2) the voters and the candidates will be spared two weeks of campaigning , and (3) the choice of the bulk of the electorate will be honored, not only the handful that vote in a runoff.
The second problem is that candidates who have received public funds can get additional subsidies for the general election campaign, even though their victory is certain. We will explore this in more detail today, as well as offer digressions on recent elections.
Candidates for public office who are certain winners in November have received millions of tax dollars from the Campaign Finance Board. With the election twenty-seven days away, some candidates have already received eighty thousand dollars or more to subsidize their romps over unknown opponents.
Some have declined this largesse, but others cannot wait to gobble it up.
Public financing of political campaigns was first enacted in New York City in 1988, twenty-one years ago. Its purposes were to reduce the advantage that richer candidates had over poorer ones, and lessen the influence of special interests on city elections. By matching citizens’ campaign contributions with public funds, and imposing a spending cap on all participants in the system, it was believed that fairness and equality would be promoted, and that races would be more likely to be decided on the merits of the candidate’s message, rather than the extent of its amplification through paid commercials.
Whether you agree with it or not, the United States Supreme Court decided in 1976 in the case of Buckley v. Valeo that the Constitutional First Amendment right to free speech prohibited the government from imposing limits on individuals’ contributions to their own election, which they held to be a form of speech. This was not a 5-4 split: the court vote was 7-1, with Chief Justice Warren Burger the lone dissenter. Justice Stevens, the only justice still on the court 33 years later, did not participate in the case. The majority consisted of Justices Brennan, Stewart, White, Marshall, Blackmun, Powell and Rehnquist. They represented both liberal and conservative viewpoints.
The great majority of office-seekers are pleased to receive bounty from the New York City government, especially at the new rate of six public dollars to one dollar they raise themselves. The generous match applies to gifts up to $175. The ratio used to be four to one, with a $250 ceiling for a matchable contribution. Originally the match was one to one, with a $1000 maximum for each donation.
Caps apply both to the amount of public funds a candidate may receive, and to the amount of private funds a campaign that is receiving public funds may spend to pursue a particular office.
In addition to the cap on money the candidates can receive from the city, there are also spending limits. They are: City Council - $161,000 for the primary and the same sum for the election. Borough President - $1,386,000 for each race. Public Advocate and Comptroller: $3,850,000 for each candidate for each election. Mayor - $6,158,000 for the primary and the same sum for the general election.
Now you know the statutory limits. The actual application of the limits is the subject of periodic disputes. Phone banks, volunteers, gifts in kind, and other forms of assistance can be used to circumvent the rules. Regulating politicians is like herding cats. The Working Families Party’s use of a for-profit entity, Data and Field Services, further complicates the enforcement of campaign spending rules.
One aspect of the law which has led to considerable dissatisfaction is the appropriation of public funds to candidates who are certain either to be elected or defeated. Runaway races are often the case in New York, particularly in general elections in certain boroughs. New York City is deep blue, in that it consistently elects Democrats, with the exception of the last four races for Mayor, two of which were won by Rudy Giuliani (1993 and 97), and two by Mike Bloomberg (2001 and 05). At the top of the ticket, people are much more likely to make individual judgments about the candidates. If they read newspapers, watch TV or scan the internet, they gain information about the election and the issues involved. They are exposed to commercials from both sides. They vote more for candidates than for political parties.
As New Yorkers proceed down the ballot, where the names and the records of the candidates are less familiar, voters are much more likely to vote Democratic, the party which they and their parents have been accustomed to support. Election results become increasingly predictable as one examines the results of contests for relatively minor offices.
Voters in small districts are expensive to reach by city-wide media, which serve much larger areas. Partisan decennial gerrymandering has had a substantial ill effect, and districts, once drawn mainly to accommodate incumbents and frustrate political challengers, are now also designed to be non-competitive racial enclaves.
These districts can become hotbeds of extremism, because candidacies are based on the identity politics of the predominant group in the district. Years ago, in multi-racial district like Congressman Rangel’s in Manhattan, a candidate has to appeal to several ethnic groups. The new segregated districts have been deliberately designed, at the behest of the US Department of Justice, under both Republican and Democratic attorneys general, to elect public officials of a particular race, ethnicity The City of New York added sexual orientation to the mix. This is modern politics, since post-modern has not yet arrived in either Emerald City or the Empire State.