The 2024 election cycle will be the first election where candidates running for statewide office in New York can opt into the state’s new small donor public financing program. Laura Ladd Bierman and Erica Smitka of the League of Women Voters of New York join Policy Outsider host Alex Morse to discuss the details of the new program and the history of campaign finance reform in the state. The conversation examines how public financing intends to level the electoral playing field of state elections, increase representation, and reduce the influence of big money in politics. The episode also covers what other reforms can help strengthen elections and make campaign finance more equitable throughout the state.


Laura Ladd Bierman, executive director, League of Women Voters of New York

Erica Smitka, deputy director, League of Women Voters of New York

Learn More:

League of Women Voters of New York

New York State Public Campaign Finance Board

Small Donor Public Financing: A Tool for Empowering New Yorkers in the Age of Citizens United

  • Transcript

    Transcript was generated using AI software and may contain errors.

    Alexander Morse  00:03

    Hi and welcome to Policy Outsider presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government. I’m Alex Morse. The 2024 election cycle, already underway, marks a historic first for New York State. It will be the first election where candidates running for the Senate and Assembly can opt into the state’s new, small donor public financing program. The voluntary program offers a match of public money for small contributions from constituents to eligible participating candidates. Laura Ladd Bierman and Erica Smitka of the League of Women Voters of New York join us today to discuss the details of New York’s new public financing program and the history of campaign finance reform in the state. The conversation details how public financing intends to level the electoral playing field of state elections, increased representation and reduce the influence of big money in politics. We also cover what other reforms can help strengthen elections and make campaign finance more equitable throughout the state. Hope you enjoy. Coming up next.

    Alexander Morse 01:25

    Today, I’m joined by Laura Ladd Bierman, executive director of the League of Women Voters of New York State and Erica Smitka, deputy director of the League of Women Voters of New York State. Laura, Erica, thanks for joining me today.

    All  01:38

    Thanks for having us.

    Alexander Morse  01:39

    We’re here today to talk a little bit about small donor public financing. There is a lot of conversation around money in politics and how it can have an outsized influence. There’s a lot of social questions, political questions and fiscal questions. And we hope to dive into all of those today. You have been working with the Public Campaign Financing Board on learning about public financing, and what this is going to mean for campaign reform in New York state. So just to do a little bit of table setting here. What is small public donor financing?

    Erica Smitka  02:14

    The quick answer is that small donor public financing strengthens the voice of small donors by allowing the program to match small donor contributions from in-district donors. So what that means is in New York State, it’s any contribution that’s $250 or less, and this is a contribution to a political candidate, I should specify. And so in New York State, eligible candidates for statewide offices will receive a match of six to one on contributions, again, that are of $250 or less. So an example of this is if a New York resident gives $25 to a participating candidate, the program will match that contribution at that six to one rate, with $150. Which means that the total value of the contribution from that small donor instead of being the original $25, is now valued at $175 at the end of the day. New York just launched the program in November of this year, and it will go into effect for candidates running in the 2024 statewide election. It’s completely a voluntary program. And it allows candidates running for statewide offices like governor, lieutenant governor, senator and an assemblymember to opt in. I really can can dive into the details of it, if you like.

    Alexander Morse  03:35

    What do you have in mind?

    Erica Smitka  03:36

    Well, just I guess to talk a little bit more about the programs and kind of the specifics of it. And not just anyone can receive these funds. So in order to qualify for the program, candidates have to be on the ballot, you have to get a space on the ballot and meet a fundraising threshold, which means it’s a minimum amount of fundraising that they must do from a minimum number of small donors from future constituents in their district. And they’ve got to meet that threshold before the program will even start matching contributions. And this threshold can vary, you know, based on the office in question, but for example, a candidate for Senate would have to raise at least $12,000 in 150 small donations in order to qualify for this, this matching funds program. And there is kind of a a few unique aspects to the New York State, small donor matching funds program and one of those is kind of a sliding scale based on the office that’s that’s being run for. But I won’t get too into the into the weeds here.

    Alexander Morse  04:44

    Well, that’s interesting. One thing you said that caught my caught my ear was it requires donations from constituents or potential constituents. So for example, I live in Albany County. If I were to run for state office in Albany, my family In Western New York, their contributions wouldn’t count under this program?

    Erica Smitka  05:03

    Yeah, that’s correct. The idea is really to build up support for candidates from their local level, right. So when candidates are going out and going door to door campaigning, and encouraging people to give to their campaign, they’re talking face to face with the people who are going to be financially supporting them, and then can hear directly from them what their needs are, and what the needs of the community is. It also kind of allows for that cap that level that candidates have to fundraise for before their donations can be matched, the program considers kind of socio economic diversity in different areas. So it really is a kind of an adaptable program, that I’ll give, I’ll give an example here, I guess, to give a little bit more context. But in areas with lower median incomes, the dollar amount of that qualifying threshold is going to be reduced. But the number of contributions would be the same, so that it kind of gives individuals in that area, the same amount of power as they may have been another area.

    Alexander Morse  06:01

    That’s interesting, that’s really thoughtful component to the public campaign reform to really consider equity across the state.

    Erica Smitka  06:09


    Alexander Morse  06:10

    Another thing that you’d mentioned that this is a voluntary program. So again, if I were to run for office, which I’m not, but if I were to, I’d have to opt into this program, it doesn’t happen automatically?

    Erica Smitka  06:21

    Yes, that’s correct. You do have to opt into the program. And the Public Campaign Finance Board has a beautiful website that gives a lot of really great information about exactly how candidates can do that.

    Alexander Morse  06:32

    We’ll be sure to link it into the episode description so that listeners who are interested in maybe pursuing a run for office can learn more, we’ll also send them to the League of Women Voters New York State so they can get even more information from you guys. This, you said that this was enacted in November of 2022. Alright, what’s been the history of public campaign financing in New York State? How does this differ from previous elections?

    Erica Smitka  06:58

    Yeah, New York State has a long history of public financing, kind of small donor public financing, or at least trying to enact small donor public financing. And this is something that the league has worked on for decades since 1974. And we’ve seen some form at least partial form of public campaign financing introduced in the legislature as early as 1985. It’s something that was consistently introduced, but had was never passed. It was over passed in New York City in 1988. So that program has now been running for over 30 years. And a full public campaign finance system for for all of New York State was introduced in the legislative session in 1998. And now it’s over 20 years later. And we have finally enacted it in 2020. And I do want to say before we enacted it, there was a commission that was created to study public campaign financing in New York State to really look at the details of the program. And that commission held hearings all across the state to get input from New Yorkers before enacting this program. But we’re really excited to see it finally getting off the ground here after many years of pushing for something like this.

    Alexander Morse  08:12

    That’s fascinating. I had no idea that it’s been 20 plus years of pushing for it at the state level, and that it’s been in New York City since 1980?

    Erica Smitka  08:22


    Alexander Morse  08:23

    1. And for New York City, what are some of the findings in since New York City enacted this program?

    Erica Smitka  08:31

    That’s been a really successful program in New York City, I think one of the more recent findings that really kind of shows one of the great benefits of a program like this, and the fact that it lowers the barrier, the financial barrier of entry to running for office. So it allows for a more diverse set of candidates to run for office and to win office, which means that the people representing us in New York State are more reflective of the people living in New York State, right? So in New York City, for example, if you look at 2022, this program helped the city elect one of the most demographically representative councils. And so women more than doubled the representation in the New York City Council to 61%. And people of color in the council increased representation from 51% to 67%. And we see examples of kind of similar success across the country with similar programs like this.

    Alexander Morse  09:28

    Well, that’s really fascinating that the demographic increase in people of color running for office and women running for office, like you had mentioned, it’s really it’s really empowering that constituents can see representation in their government to feel empowered to have policies and people fighting for them, and to have that faith in the institution.

    Erica Smitka  09:52

    Absolutely, yeah. And you know, it’s everyone deserves to have a seat at the table right. So everyone should should be able to to have that opportunity to run for office and not to, it shouldn’t be limited to only those who have, you know, huge finances at their disposal.

    Alexander Morse  10:10

    Now, just before you mentioned that other states have implemented maybe a similar type of program, or a different type of public financing reform.Can you dive into that a little bit?

    Erica Smitka  10:20

    Sure. So I think the number is now we have just over 15 states who have a similar program and 21 municipalities across the country, you know, all the way from Maryland to Denver to I believe, it’s just passed in, in Oakland, California. And yeah, as I said, you’re kind of seeing similar successes to what I mentioned in New York City. Another example is in Seattle, one of the other benefits of the program is that it counteracts the impact of big spending, as we were talking about, and really kind of brings it back to the public and back to those living in that district, right? So in Seattle, two thirds of the publicly financed candidates who faced with massive opposition in spending from groups like Amazon and other large corporations still won their race and, and, you know, we’re successful, which is huge, just it’s not something we would see without a program like this. In Berkeley, California, for example, there program went into effect in 2018 and contributions from non Berkeley residents dropped from 33% in 2016, to 10% in 2018. So, you know, that’s, that’s a pretty significant swing and a drop of, of some of those large, wealthy donors. And instead, we’re able to see an increase of participation and an increase in diversity of of those local, local small donors. And we’ve got to mention, as a part of the League of Women Voters that if they, you know, if you’re someone who’s donating to a candidate’s campaign, you’re that much more likely to get out there and to to vote for them at the polls. And that’s something that is, is always so important that people will show up and vote.

    Alexander Morse  12:04

    So we’ve covered a little bit about the benefits of public campaign finance reform, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about if there are any risks associated with it. Among these case studies, or maybe what the commission that have studied what it would look like in New York State, what are some of the associated challenges that might come with a new campaign finance reform?

    Erica Smitka  12:23

    So there’s no true inherent risks to the program itself. You know, theoretically, a lack of funding for the program, and a lack of buy into the program could make it really difficult for the program to get off the ground and make it really difficult for the program to be successful. So in that sense, there’s, you know, ways that the program itself could be harmed. But there’s truly, you know, no inherent risk to someone opting into the program or participating in the program.

    Alexander Morse  12:46

    Speaking of getting the program off the ground, there needs to be money in New York State’s budget set aside for financing these public campaigns. As we record, the budget in New York State has not yet passed. So we don’t know what the final number set aside appropriated for this program is going to be but what are some of the costs that Public Campaign Finance Board or the League of Women Voters or other groups think are necessary to help get this program running and to be successful?

    Erica Smitka  13:11

    The Public Campaign Finance Board has requested $100 million in matching funds and $14.5 million in administrative funds. And so that is a number that we have supported where you know, backing the PCFB in that request. And and we really believe that those funds are absolutely needed to get buy in from candidates and to to get the program off the ground. The ultimate cost of the program will really depend on how many candidates participate and and the funds that they raise. But in the one house budgets now we’re seeing $25 million in matching funds and $14.5 million in those administrative funds. So I can see where we were happy to see that, you know, matching funds were included. But we ideally would have liked to see that that larger support for the program that at $100 million. But it does require that money to, again, get off, get off the ground.

    Alexander Morse  14:07

    What additional policies at the state level would help make this program more likely to succeed? We’ve talked a little bit about trying to limit outsized wealthy donors. So what about different types of campaign contributions, strategies or oversights between different political action committees, disclosure rules, etc? Is there anything else that can help strengthen this program?

    Laura Ladd Bierman  14:30

    There are a lot of other things that could help strengthen these programs. And the league has fought for campaign finance reform, not just the public financing side for many, many years. And we still believe that there are things that should be done as far as campaign finance reforms that would actually make the public financing part stronger because it would make candidates more reliant on or more dependent on the small donor matching funds. So some of the examples of things that we’ve been advocating for in the past one, lower limits for candidates, the amount of money that they can receive from an individual is some of the highest levels in the country. They’re higher even than the limits that are imposed on federal candidates. So we just have, they have reduced them recently, but we’re still we still have very high limits. Also, we’d love to lower limits that are allowed to be given to political parties. Political parties in this state, are very strong, have a lot of control over candidates, who’s running, what they’re able to do. And so we feel there should be limits on the amount of money you can give to political parties. And also limits on donations to housekeeping costs. The housekeeping accounts are huge in New York State, and not only limiting how lucky you can give to a housekeeping account, which is right now unlimited, but also, we would like to see restrictions on how those housekeeping accounts can be used. Right now they are, there are not many restrictions. And we feel that that would be a better control of political funding and that can sway candidates or their constituents by funding candidates and funding other pieces of their campaign to the housekeeping accounts. I have more. There are, we would love to see restrictions on lobbyists and lobbyists PACs, and others who are seeking governmental contracts, we would like to them to be restricted or banned from making campaign contributions. Because if they are contributing to a campaign or to a candidate, and then later seeking a government contract, there seems to be a bit of a conflict of interest in our mind there. And we think that that should be limited or restricted in some way. And then the whole connection between PACs and candidates themselves. We’ve seen that in past elections, there’s supposed to be a division, we think though, that division should be even stronger, and transparency on how that division is maintained. And just more restrictions on that a candidate cannot have anything to do with a PAC that is raising money separately in support of that candidate or against other candidates, or on items on ballot proposals. And finally, there’s been a lot of discussion in the in many for many years, on the use of leftover campaign funds. After the campaign’s over what do they do with those campaign funds? And we’ve seen examples of what we consider bad uses of some of those campaign funds. And we think there should be restrictions on what can you do with your campaign funds once the campaign is over. So those those are kind of a list of some of the things we’ve advocated for many years. We are very happy that the limits did come down some, we think they could come down lower. And we think all of these things would actually help to make the small donor matching system even stronger, because candidates would be more dependent on on their constituents for funding and supporting their campaigns.

    Alexander Morse  18:26

    Yeah, I’m interested in these contribution limits for different either political parties or candidates themselves. I’m aware that through this campaign finance reform in New York State, as you mentioned, that limits were reduced a little bit and you want them to be maybe reduced a little bit further. How does that conflict with the Citizens United case decided by the Supreme Court in 2010, which more or less prohibited restricting independent expenditures? If I were to try to reduce that a little bit, I’d say money equals speech. Am I right in saying it that way?

    Laura Ladd Bierman  19:01

    Yes. I mean, Citizen United had more to do with I believe the corporate, you know, making corporations equal to individuals and what they could donate candidates, lowering the campaign limits in New York State would definitely, you know, help equal the playing field a little bit more. The small donor matching system really puts the emphasis on individual donors as opposed to the large corporations or the large donors who might be influencing the the campaigns in the candidates. So yes, the public finance system is a way to counter the ruling from Citizen United and put the emphasis back on the constituents of the candidates as opposed to big corporations or big donors influencing the individual candidates

    Alexander Morse  19:56

    Trying to level the playing field?

    Laura Ladd Bierman  19:58


    Erica Smitka  19:58

    Yeah, I think a good example of that, you know, make this a little more graspable in New York State is in the 2022 election, we saw just one billionaire funneled at least $11 million to two Super PACs that were spending money in the governor’s race. And then in our state Senate primary, super PACs also poured more than $1.5, $1.6 million into five different competitive races. So I mean, no average citizen can can compete with $11 million, right? But we also saw a poll that just came out from Data for Progress and Stand up America that more than nine in 10, voters in New York State believe that wealthy donors have an outsized influence, and 77% think that this is a big concern, and that something really needs to be done about the power of wealthy donors in New York State politics. And this really is the the answer to give, as Laura said, give voters and citizens a little bit more power against those massive contributions.

    Laura Ladd Bierman  20:58

    And the PACs, this isn’t, you know, the small donor matching system does not have, you know, have a direct impact on the PACs, the PACs have to be dealt with separately. And that’s why we would, you know, we want to make sure there’s a real division between the candidates in the campaign’s and the PACs. And we feel that there should be more controls on what the PACs can raise and more transparency would be, you know, the best way to to see where’s the money coming from in those PACs. You know, those ads that you see on TV now, from PACs, and down at the bottom at the last what, 30 seconds or less, it says paid for by bla bla bla bla, and you have no idea of what that organization is where did they get their money? What is what? Yes, where did they is it one big donor? Is it a few big donors? So it we would want PACs to be forced to have more transparency, and maybe limit what they can raise. But the biggest thing is keeping them separate from candidates. So yes, the small donor will will help embolden candidates that they can now run, but that those PACs are still out there. And there still, there needs to be other reforms, dealing with the PACs and what they can do.

    Alexander Morse  22:23

    Well, as we’ve worked together in the past on campaign finance reform, we like I mentioned, we have the event with the Brennan Center for Justice, talking about some of the strategies and some of the policies that are in being enacted, and and this conversation, identifying some of the other obstacles that need to be addressed. What would you like to say as a closing word about how we can move forward and how we can maybe close some of those loopholes.

    Laura Ladd Bierman  22:48

    I think that, you know, one of the things that people have to remember is that candidates are elected by voters, and the voters are the constituents live in their districts. And to make the candidate understand who their constituents are, and what their constituents’ concerns are, the candidates have to be looking toward those people. And if they’re always out there trying to talk to big donors, because they’re forced to raise, you know, huge amounts for their campaigns, they’re not listening to their constituents, they’re not listening to the voters. So this is a program that we strongly believe will one, as Erica said, will diversify, hopefully the pool and allow other people who don’t have those connections to big donors suddenly decide, maybe I could run for office, I could have a voice in our government, because they’re, they, they can do it by raising the small donations, they can do it by talking to their neighbors. And so it’s important for our government to be representative of their areas, but also to be listening to the people of their areas. And we think those two things are part of why this public matching system is so important and and can make a change in how our elected officials are working for us in in government.

    Alexander Morse  24:18

    Erica, any other final words?

    Erica Smitka  24:20

    Said it well, Laura. I think you’re you really hit the nail on the head with a lot of what you talked about, um, it really is about kind of bringing the power back to the people and and going back to that original idea of what is a democracy and ensuring that who you’re electing is really representing you and your community.

    Alexander Morse  24:38

    Elections are integral to the continuation of this democracy and progress. Laura Ladd Bierman, Erica Smitka, League of Women Voters of New York State, thank you so much for taking the time to share your insights on this new campaign finance reform and what New York can expect moving forward.

    All  24:56

    Thank you.

    Alexander Morse  25:00

    Thanks to Laura Ladd Behrman and Erika Smitka of the League of Women Voters of New York for taking the time to talk about New York State’s historic small donor public financing program. If you are interested in running for office or just curious to learn more about public financing of elections, you can visit their website or by visiting the Public Campaign Finance Board’s website to find more information. If you liked this episode, please rate subscribe and share. It will help others find the podcast and help us deliver the latest in public policy research. All of our episodes are available for free wherever you stream your podcasts and transcripts are available on our website. Special thanks to Rockefeller Institute staff Joel Tirado, Heather Trela, and Laura Schultz for their contributions to this episode. Thanks for listening. I’m Alex Morse. Until next time. Policy Outsider is presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York. The Institute conducts cutting edge nonpartisan public policy research and analysis to inform lasting solutions to the challenges facing New York state and the nation. Learn more at Rock or by following at Rockefeller inst that Rockefeller i n s t on social media. Have a question comment or idea. Email us at [email protected]

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