Institute Forum

Summary: "Should New York City's Campaign Finance System Be a Model for the State?" December 1, 2010

New York City: A Model of Campaign Finance Reform?

Campaign finance reform advocates often point to Minnesota as the state with the best record of participation by average-income citizens in the political process.

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Audio (Full)

Video: Michael Malbin
Prof. Malbin's slide presentation

Video: Jerry Goldfeder
Video: Q&A session

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Michael Malbin sees another place with a model that may be easier for other states to replicate: New York City.

New York City has achieved impressive results in engaging more residents in the political process, Malbin argued at a December 1 public policy forum at the Rockefeller Institute. The city has accomplished this through campaign finance rules that encourage more individual donations by providing matching public funds, said Malbin, a professor of political science at the University at Albany's Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy and executive director of The Campaign Finance Institute.

Small-donor contributions are favored by many campaign finance reform supporters, including Malbin, because they theoretically lessen the influence of large donors while involving more citizens in campaigns. In Minnesota, small donors — those giving less than $250 to a candidate — contribute 60 percent of the money given in election campaigns. But Minnesota’s environment is also seen as unique and perhaps impossible to copy, due in part to a longstanding tradition of strong civic participation.

New York City, on the other hand, has increased citizen involvement in the election process primarily through public policy changes, Malbin said. He presented simulations that showed what would happen to statewide election campaigns if New York State adopted some of the same reforms, including matching public funds and caps on contribution amounts.

His conclusion: Instituting the city's campaign finance rules statewide could have the desirable effect of increasing small-donor contributions. And those contributions are beneficial, he added, because they force candidates to reach out to more citizens throughout their campaign, and potentially interest some of them in participating more fully in the democratic process.

“Participation is a learned experience, and it becomes a tool for getting more kinds of people into the system,” Malbin said.

Election-law expert Jerry H. Goldfeder, special counsel at the law firm Stroock & Stroock & Lavan and author of Goldfeder’s Modern Election Law, countered that the focus on increasing the number of small donors was not the right one. In New York City, Goldfeder noted, some candidates who have brought in a larger number of small donors have nonetheless lost their bids for election. And even when such candidates win, Goldfeder questioned whether they ultimately represent small donors’ interests. Many of the small donors who contributed to President Barack Obama's campaign are nonetheless disaffected by his administration's policies, especially in the area of economic recovery, he said.

“When you bring in more small donors, the question that you have to ask is: What difference does it make?” Goldfeder said.

The goal of campaign finance reform, Goldfeder said, should be to reduce the role of money in elections and shift candidates' focus toward policy issues and engaging voters. He argued for a statewide campaign finance system that provides flat public grants to candidates, as is available in presidential elections. To discourage candidates from opting out of that public finance system, Goldfeder suggested urging unions, trade associations and newspaper editorial boards to agree not to endorse candidates who opt out.


The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York, conducts fiscal and programmatic research on American state and local governments. It works closely with federal, state, and local government agencies nationally and in New York, and draws on the State University’s rich intellectual resources and on networks of public policy academic experts throughout the country.