What’s on the Back of the Ballot in New York City? 3 Ways to Tweak Democracy
If you haven’t noticed New York City’s $1 million-plus ad campaign to “Flip Your Ballot” — or if you want to know more about the ballot proposals in Tuesday’s election — you’ve come to the right place.
New Yorkers will be asked to approve or reject three revisions to the City Charter. The questions will be on the back of the city’s paper ballots — hence, the slogan — and are the result of six months of public hearings about possible changes to the charter.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has said the proposals, if passed, would enhance the way democracy works in the city. Not everyone agrees.
Proposal No. 1
The city may pay more to empower small donors
This proposal would sharply reduce the maximum contribution that donors could make to many political campaigns, and increase the city’s matching-funds program for candidates. The goal is to reduce the influence of large donors.
Mr. de Blasio said on Thursday that many people interested in running for office, particularly first-time candidates, don’t know wealthy people who can contribute to their campaigns. He said a stronger matching-funds program would create an electoral system in which candidates could focus instead on small donors, rather than courting the wealthy and special interests.
If the measure passes, donors could give a maximum of $ 2,000 to a candidate for mayor or other citywide office, down from $5,100 currently; maximum donations to City Council candidates would be set at $1,000, down from $2,850. Higher limits would apply to candidates who do not accept matching funds.
The dollar match of public funds would be increased to eight-to-one, up from the current six-to-one. That would apply to the first $250 donated by a contributor (the match currently applies to the first $175 donated). That means that if someone gives $250, the candidate would receive an additional $2,000 in public matching funds — increasing the importance of small donations.
The amount of public matching funds varies from election to election, largely depending on the number of candidates running. In 2013, the city’s Campaign Finance Board paid out $38.2 million to all candidates, according to Matthew Sollars, the board’s spokesman. In 2017, it distributed $16.9 million.
If the proposal passes, the charter revision commission estimated that the cost of the matching funds program would increase by about 47 percent.
Some have criticized the proposal because it includes a trap door for the next big city election, in 2021, that gives candidates running that year the ability to choose between the new rules and the current system. Critics said the provision was included to avoid potential opposition from the large number of elected officials who are term-limited and looking to run for a different office in 2021 — and may prefer to operate with the higher donation limits.
Proposal No. 2
A mayoral Civic Engagement Commission
Everybody loves a mayoral commission! No? Well, here’s your chance to decide.
This proposal would create a Civic Engagement Commission that would work to increase participation in the democratic process and civic life, provide resources to community boards, and place translators at voting sites, among other tasks. The mayor would appoint a majority of the board’s 15 members and be able to assign it new duties.
One of the commission’s tasks would be to expand the participatory budgeting system, which allows residents to vote on how to spend small amounts of city money in their neighborhoods. Brad Lander, a Brooklyn city councilman, said the proposal would “turbocharge civic participation in New York City.”
But others said the commission was unnecessary.
“What is this thing?” said Gale Brewer, the Manhattan borough president, who argued that the commission would duplicate the functions of other governmental entities, including the borough presidents’ offices.
Borough presidents appoint community board members and also provide them with many of the services that the new commission would offer, Ms. Brewer said. She suggested that the proposal was a way for the mayor to exert more control over the community boards, which sometimes push back against mayoral initiatives, like zoning changes and development projects.
Proposal No. 3
Community board members must step down after eight years
Thanks for your service. Now leave.
The last proposal would require community board members to step down after eight years. There is currently no limit on the amount of time that board members can serve. The stated goal of this change is to make the boards more diverse and to create space for fresh leadership.
“I just want to say, why would you want to term-limit volunteers?” Scott M. Stringer, the city comptroller, said. Mr. Stringer served on a Manhattan community board as a teenager in the 1970s. He later served as Manhattan borough president, when he appointed hundreds of new community board members, and said that he increased the representation of African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans and members of the gay community. He said it was a “bogus argument” that the change was needed to diversify the boards.
Ms. Brewer also opposes the proposal, suggesting that many long-serving board members accumulate needed expertise on subjects like land use, zoning and parks, which gives the boards the ability to evaluate proposals and stand up to well-financed developers.
“The land-use attorneys don’t have term limits,” Ms. Brewer said.
The mayor disagrees. “If you don’t allow for some natural turnover, a lot of people are going to feel there is no chance for them to participate,” he said on Friday. “That’s not healthy in a democracy.”
The mayor was making a last-minute push for the proposals
Mr. de Blasio created the charter revision commission early this year and set its agenda. He has made improving the practice of democracy a centerpiece of his second term. But he was surprisingly quiet on the topic until this week, when he began a campaign to alert New Yorkers that the proposals were on the ballot and to urge them to vote yes.
Mr. de Blasio acknowledged that he was slow to get the word out. “I would have liked to have seen some of this start earlier,” he said on Thursday, adding that he has been too busy to do so.
The city’s Law Department has instructed elected officials that they cannot use any city resources to campaign for or against the ballot proposals, and cannot do so on city time — although they were free to do so on their own time. That is why the city-financed ad campaign asks people only to vote on the proposals and does not advocate a yes-or-no vote.
But on Thursday, Mr. de Blasio held a rally at the Manhattan headquarters of Local 32BJ, of the Service Employees International Union, to gain support for the proposals. The rally was scheduled as part of his weekly mayoral news conference, announced by his City Hall office, attended by City Hall staff, and included on his public schedule (his campaign events are typically not on his official schedule).
Mr. de Blasio, who urged New Yorkers to “vote yes, yes, yes,” said he was not violating the Law Department’s instructions.
“I am not breaking the law,” he said. “The fact is, I understand where that limit is but I also understand how important it is, in my own time — and a lot of other people here are on their own time — to get the word out about what this will mean about changing our city.”
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