Democracy is on the ballot every election cycle, including the June primaries of this year. Two years ago, nearly 1 million voters embraced ranked-choice voting, voting for candidates in local or citywide races. In the most recent citywide primary, we also saw record turnout with more than 1 in 4 registered New Yorkers casting ballots, making it the highest voter turnout of any mayoral primary in decades.
The Campaign Finance Board (CFB) made history by distributing more than $126.9 million in public payments to support the efforts of more than 300 candidates who met the necessary thresholds to receive matching funds. Despite these important accomplishments, the board still has more to offer city residents and candidates. In addition to our matching fund program, our agency oversees the NYC Votes Initiative that encourages voter participation and educates them about the candidates each election cycle.
When combined with RCV, our unique program has helped several non-traditional candidates successfully run for public office. Under these unique conditions in 2021, the voters of the city elected a government that is truly representative of the people of our city. The City Council sworn in earlier this year is also the most diverse in the city’s history and gave us our first Council with a majority of women.
The Campaign Finance Board serves New Yorkers in many ways, but there are three main things for which we are best known. First, we are a good government program that supports candidates seeking to participate in our democracy by running for elected office. Our agency is responsible for disbursing millions of dollars in public matching funds, as well as conducting extensive reviews and audits of the hundreds of campaign documentation filed with the CFB.
Second, we promote a variety of educational initiatives that can be used to conduct voter outreach and keep the public informed about all things election-related. This takes the form of our NYC Votes campaign and CFB partnerships and outreach initiatives that seek to inform New Yorkers about the upcoming election by supporting local democratic coalitions in communities historically underrepresented in the city’s electorate.
Last but not least, the CFB exists as a regulatory agency at the heart of city government, designed to build trust in our campaign finance system. The CFB’s robust disclosure and oversight requirements promote transparency and accountability in local elections. Our Follow the Money database it accomplishes this by tracking every dollar raised and spent by candidates and outside groups.
We live in a time when many question the integrity of candidates running for office, and it’s clear that real campaign finance reform is needed. Pay-to-play schemes, big money in politics and special interests have allowed corporations and a handful of wealthy individuals and donors to have significant influence in our government. These tactics may allow a select few people to use their influence for personal gain, further eroding public trust in our institutions.
It is a false notion that publicly funded campaigns create more opportunities for corruption. Candidates in our matching fund program must also agree to participate in our rigorous audit process that was created to identify and eliminate any opportunities for corruption. Bell audits are part of our mandate in the city charter and they are fundamental to our work. At the Campaign Finance Board, we pride ourselves on being an anti-corruption agency, and identifying and preventing any form of wrongdoing in our electoral process has always been our agency’s #1 priority.
Once corruption is identified, an opportunity for change is created and in 1988, when confronted with corruption, the New York City took the opportunity to pass the Campaign Finance Act, thus creating the Campaign Finance Board. Since then, the CFB has spent more than 35 years disbursing matching fund payments and providing public disclosures of campaign finance information to ensure we have fair and transparent elections. In that time, our agency has grown to manage one of the strongest and most effective campaign finance systems in the country.
We are proud to see our program serve as a model for other states and localities across the country seeking to improve voter participation in our democracy. We are very excited that New York State launched its own Public Campaign Finance Program last year, and we look forward to helping and learning from its highly anticipated first year in the 2024 election cycle. Democracy is not a spectator sport , and we need everyone to participate if we hope to reduce the role of the big fortunes and limit corruption in politics as we have been able to do here in New York City.
Rotman is executive director of the city’s Campaign Finance Board.