Thiele: Sweeping Election Reform Measure Tackles NY’s Campaign Finance System

Fair Elections Act includes public financing of elections, increased transparency of independent expenditures

Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. (I, D, WF-Sag Harbor) announced the Assembly passed the 2013 Fair Elections Act he sponsored to help reform New York’s campaign finance system. The bill, which would cover statewide offices, state legislative offices and constitutional convention delegates, establishes optional public financing of elections, creates the Fair Elections Board – an independent enforcement entity – and increases disclosure of independent expenditures (A.4980-C).

“New Yorkers have become more cynical about our election process,” Assemblyman Thiele said. “Over and over, we see big money dominating campaigns and we need to restore faith in our electoral process. Elections should be based on who can best serve the interests of the people – not on who can raise and spend the most money.”

Public financing of elections will help average citizens

The 2013 Fair Elections Act allows candidates for state office who meet the necessary requirements and reach the eligibility thresholds in their fundraising efforts to receive matching contributions of $6 for every $1 they raise on contributions of up to $250. The legislation requires candidates to build a broad coalition of supporters by requiring a specific number of small-dollar donors from a candidate’s district, to ensure that large-dollar donors do not have undue influence. Participating candidates may raise up to $2,000 per private contribution, but only the first $250 will be matched.

Candidates who choose not to participate in the public financing system would be subject to the current contribution and receipt limitations. However, the legislation would require the disclosure of bundlers of campaign contributions.

Underscoring the importance of the substance of campaigns and not the money that funds them, this legislation would create more opportunities for the public to learn about each candidate and their views on the issues. Candidates receiving public financing would be required to participate in at least one debate before the primary election and one debate before the general election. These debates would be open to all candidates, regardless of funding.

The bill provides mechanisms for funding the new system, including an income tax check-off of $5 that would be deposited into the newly created “New York State Campaign Finance Fund” and an additional 10-percent surcharge on recoveries from fraudulent practices relating to stocks, bonds and other securities. If the Campaign Finance Fund lacks sufficient money, properly certified claims by the state comptroller would be paid from the state’s general fund.

“Public financing of elections would fundamentally change New York’s electoral process to the benefit of East End families,” Assemblyman Thiele said. “By limiting the size of individual contributions and requiring a large number of small-dollar donors, no single donor could ever have outsized influence.”

Creating a Fair Elections Board with oversight and enforcement power

A Fair Elections Board would be created under the Assembly’s legislation and charged with the oversight of the state’s public financing procedures. The board, composed of five members, one of which will be appointed by the governor, as well as one each by the legislative leaders of the Assembly and Senate, would appoint a counsel for the purpose of enforcing all campaign finance laws, rules and regulations.

Criminal violations of the new public financing system would be prosecuted by the state attorney general. The failure to make proper campaign finance filings would be a misdemeanor and would result in a penalty of up to $10,000 as well as a civil penalty of up to $5,000. The knowing and willful violation of other provisions of the new public financing scheme would be a misdemeanor and would result in a fine of up to $10,000 as well as a civil penalty of up to $10,000. False statements or omitted material during the course of an audit by the campaign finance board would be a class E felony. The campaign finance board could impose upon a defendant to repay any public matching funds obtained as the result of criminal conduct.

“Candidates must know that there will be harsh consequences for violating this law,” Thiele said. “I firmly believe the threat of a misdemeanor or a felony combined with a hefty fine will do it. These penalties make it abundantly clear that any attempt to corrupt the electoral process will be met with swift action.”

The 2013 Fair Elections Act would apply to candidates for state comptroller beginning with the 2014 election. State legislative candidates would be eligible to participate in the 2016 election. All other statewide candidates and constitutional delegates would be eligible to participate in 2018.

Increased disclosure of independent expenditures

The Assembly’s legislation also addresses the increased activity of third-party campaign communications that expressly advocate for the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate or ballot measure. Because these communication and advocacy efforts do not explicitly originate from a candidate, campaign or political party, it is often difficult for the typical voter to determine the source and truthfulness of the message.

The legislation ensures that entities engaged in express advocacy of candidates are subject to the same registration and disclosure provisions that are now required of candidates and their campaigns. Under current law, New York requires financial disclosure only for organizations engaging in election-related communications which advocate for or against candidates using specific language.

Many times, independent expenditures will avoid disclosure requirements by using alternate language which has not been specifically detailed under current law. This measure adopts the same standard as the federal government for all election-related communication and subjects it to disclosure requirements even if the communication does not use the specific language outlined under current law. Currently, corporations, wealthy activists and other special interests are allowed to participate directly in New York State campaigns through unlimited independent expenditures so long as they define themselves as issue advocates and do not use certain words. With this new electoral reform, this will no longer be permitted.

“This landmark reform legislation will restore confidence in our democratic process,” Assemblyman Thiele said. “With more citizens participating in the process we’ll truly empower voters. Full disclosure of independent expenditures would also give voters a better idea of who is really behind the campaign messages they see.”