Money in Politics is a Problem, but Voter Apathy is a Crisis

(Citizens United was decided on January 21, 2010. The decision changed the trajectory of my career. Five years later I revisited why so little has happened to reform money in politics, and why that reform energy should be directed towards a far more troubling issue. This ran in City & State yesterday.)

Five years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. F.E.C.unleashed a torrent of outrage about the dirty influence of corporate money in politics. Despite activist efforts, legislative bills and court battles, today there is more unregulated money in politics than ever. But instead of fixating on money in politics, reformers should turn to the more alarming issue of New York’s plummeting voter participation rate.

Campaign finance reform will not happen anytime soon at the federal or state level. The original backlash against Citizens United was magnified by the recession, which made the expansion of corporate rights particularly unseemly, and Stephen Colbert’s biting coverage of the case. These two factors gave activists a narrow window to make Citizens United a bigger deal than previous campaign finance debates, but the window slammed shut the day every Republican in the U.S. Senate filibustered the “Disclose Act.” From then on, campaign finance was cast as just another partisan issue, and we know how those turn out.

Reform efforts have done even worse in the courts. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts has been on a veritable warpath, as Citizens United sister cases McComish v. Bennett and McCutcheon v. F.E.Chave made regulating money in politics even harder. With five conservatives on the Court for the foreseeable future, Citizens United isn’t going anywhere.

The New York State campaign finance system is designed to grease huge checks from interest groups. As the Moreland Commission demonstrated a year ago, even the state’s existing rules are poorly enforced and riddled with loopholes. That will not change this year or next year. Why would it, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver benefit from the current system and have spent four years rejecting efforts to improve it?

New York City’s public matching system, increasingly held up as a national model, should use this off election year for real introspection. Even under its vaunted system, incumbents not tied to scandal rarely lose, newcomers struggle with compliance requirements and rule-breakers get off with small fines. Despite the public matching program, leading candidates spend far more energy on big donors. (Mayor Bill de Blasio’s average contribution in 2013 was $808.)

The same big spenders dominate most city and state elections: real estate, municipal unions, telecoms, the health industry and super wealthy individuals who want to be political players.

Money in politics might be a problem, but the voters checking out is a crisis. The United States has some of the lowest turnouts of any world democracy. New York is among the worst states, with participation in freefall for decades,dropping from 75 percent in 1982 to 31 percent in 2014.

New York City turnout is even lower, sputtering out at 24 percent during the 2013 mayoral election, the worst in its history.

For perspective, six losing candidates between 1950 and 1993 received more actual votes than de Blasio did in 2013.

Money in politics is not the main reasons for the decline in voting. Campaign contributions have historically not been considered determinative in New York City elections. As detailed in Chris McNickle’s “To Be Mayor,” New York City electoral tickets were carefully prepared in the past, to balance various ethnicities who voted heavily for their own. Tammany Hall’s reliance on illegal kickbacks and vast patronage mills to buy votes is well documented. Jack Newfield and Wayne Barrett’s “City For Sale” describes the power of political bosses deep into the 1980s. New York now has fewer political machines, but also far fewer voters.

There are no easy fixes to this collapse in voter interest, but these ideas might help.

First, voting in New York must be simplified. In past years, advocates have introduced comprehensive legislation that would, among other things, simplify the process to switch parties (for primary voting), extend voting hours and unify a confusing voting calendar.

There is no persuasive argument against these reforms. The costs range from minimal to money-saving. They should be introduced again, and supported across the ideological spectrum.

Second, New Yorkers need a reason to care; many no longer see the point of voting in uncompetitive elections. There is an opportunity here for the GOP, which could rebuild the local party as a socially libertarian, fiscally cautious alternative to one-party Democratic rule; rebranding itself using real issues is a better plan than praying for a charismatic, wealthy candidate to come along. Everyone would benefit from a stronger Republican Party because it would force Democratic candidates to engage the left wing of their party and work to earn their votes.

Third, elected officials of all parties should make a stronger effort to connect to their communities than they have in recent years. Potential challengers should scrutinize the paltry voting numbers in their districts and recognize that many City Council members and state legislators are much weaker than they appear, having coasted on the same few thousand voters. Perhaps we need a “primary everyone” campaign to reinvigorate local politics.

Votes are more powerful than money. Two days after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it is worth thinking about why we so celebrate winning the right to vote, and so carelessly squander this inalienable right.

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