The Dangers of Government Control over Campaigns: NYC Edition

As New York State legislators consider implementing a taxpayer-financed campaign scheme modeled after New York City’s program, a complaint filed against the New York City Campaign Finance Board (NYCCFB) raises an important concern about these programs:  if public funding becomes a necessity to win public office, the government can effectively shut down campaigns merely by denying candidates access to public matching funds.

The plaintiff in the complaint, John Liu, was the New York City Comptroller prior to declaring his candidacy for Mayor in 2013. In New York City’s wasteful taxpayer-financed campaign program, every $1 raised in contributions from citizens is matched with $6 in public funds. With so much money at stake, NYCCFB’s decision to deny Liu public funds amounted to a death sentence for his campaign. According to the complaint, CFB Chairman Rev. Joseph Parkes justified the Board’s decision based on “potential violations” of campaign finance rules.

We’ll see how the facts bear out in this case, but it is undoubtedly troubling to see the government shut down a political campaign over “potential” violations. Whatever happened to innocence until proven guilty? Instead of taking the time to get the facts, the CFB appears to be picking winners and losers. While it’s true that taxpayer-financed campaigns are prone to being gamed and exploited by corrupt politicians, and that New York City’s program in particular has paid out over $19 million to candidates later charged with corruption-related offenses since 2001, the case of John Liu shows how “strict enforcement” can also backfire. If the CFB continues to take an aggressive approach to rooting out campaign finance violations, it becomes very likely that at some point a campaign that’s following the rules will be wrongfully denied public funds and effectively shut down. If Liu’s complaint is accurate, that may have already happened.

Taxpayer-financed campaign programs are promoted as a means of putting campaigns in the hands of voters rather than campaign contributors. As we’ve long pointed out, they actually just put campaigns in the hands of the government. Liu’s short-lived campaign for New York City Mayor is proof of that.

It’s also worth noting that Liu’s experience cuts against the narrative conjured up by advocates of taxpayer-financed campaigns that these programs improve diversity and minority representation in legislatures. As CCP research has shown, legislatures remain highly similar before and after implementing taxpayer-financed campaigns. The percentage of women elected to legislatures does not increase, legislatures continue to be dominated by citizens from law and business backgrounds, and legislators continue to vote with organized interest groups at the same rate.

So far, evidence hasn’t stopped “reformers” from asserting that public financing will lead to greater diversity. A group of roughly 160 women wrote a letter to Governor Cuomo claiming that public financing is “vital” to getting more women in politics. The letter praises New York City’s corrupt tax-financing program, stating “New York City’s robust system of public financing recently helped elected (sic) two women of color as top citywide leaders: Public Advocate Tish James and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.”

If this is their best evidence that public financing is good for diversity, color me unimpressed. Women of color have won public office in America through private contributions before, and only 15 of New York City’s 51 City Council members are women – a mere 29.4%. Why should we credit the election of James and Mark-Viverito to a public financing system that elects over 70% men, rather than credit their own political skill?

While it’s purely speculative to say that New York City’s public financing program contributed to the election of James and Mark-Viverito, it’s quite clear that it’s the reason John Liu’s campaign for Mayor failed. Liu would have been the first Asian-American Mayor in New York City’s history had he been elected. Unfortunately he never had a chance because while other candidates were receiving truckloads of tax dollars from the state, he was told no.

Advocates for taxpayer-financed campaigns have long used the lack of diversity in American politics to their advantage, but they have never successfully shown that their reforms will actually do anything about it. What we do know is that their reforms will greatly empower the government to exert control over the political process. That’s more likely to slow racial and gender progress than accelerate it. Policymakers in Albany should take note.