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November 19, 2012
Aries Dela Cruz, 347-683-3020
Rachael Fauss,
212-227-0342 ext 10
Council Races Are More Contested, Feature More Candidates,
with Campaigns More Evenly Financed than State Legislative Races
Public Matching Programs Play a Large Role;
Campaign Finance Reform Needed For State Elections

Citizens Union today released a report, Fair Elections for New York State: How Public Matching Creates Greater Voter Choice and Competition, which compares the competitiveness of elections for city council with state legislative races taking place in New York City. The report’s findings show that city elections are more competitive and feature greater voter choice when compared to state legislative elections occurring within New York City.  The report further finds New York State’s campaign finance laws to be sorely inadequate, and calls for reforms to ensure that voters have confidence in the elections process and more choices at the ballot boxes.
When comparing the state’s campaign finance system with the city’s public financing system, Citizens Union found that contributions remain far too high – with a “limit” of $60,800 for contributions to candidates for governor, for example – and disclosure is inadequate for voters to make informed choices at the polls.  The laws that are on the books are not sufficiently enforced, and too often, those who break the law do not receive adequate penalties.  The city’s heralded campaign finance system – which features an important public matching system that enhances the influence of small donors through a 6 to 1 match – not only limits contributions from those who do business with government, but also requires greater accountability and transparency of campaign spending.
New York City’s campaign finance system allows more competition, with only 9 percent of seats completely uncontested in both the primary and general election. At the state level, the report found that nearly 21 percent of state legislative contests in New York City left voters with no choice at the polls for either the primary or general election.  City council primaries gave voters a choice of about 4 candidates per seat, while the majority of state legislative primaries were limited to only 2 candidates. State incumbents in 2010 had more than twice the financial advantage over their challengers (2.3:1), while in city council races in 2009, incumbents and challengers participating in the public matching program had a closer ratio of 1.4:1.
“Citizens Union’s report shows that for the same constituents – voters living in New York City – city council elections are more competitive and provide greater voter choice versus state legislative elections,” said Dick Dadey, Executive Director of Citizens Union.  “New York City’s matching funds program, coupled with strong campaign finance regulations, has significantly increased the political power of average New Yorkers.  New York State’s campaign finance system, on the other hand, is dominated by institutional donors and extremely lax in regulation, falling far short of the city system.  It needs substantial reform.”
Citizens Union examined city council elections in 2005 and 2009 and compared them to state legislative elections taking place within New York City in 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2012, and found a striking lack of competition and voter choice in state legislative elections.  City council races offered voters more choices, and were more competitive under several measures.
“The high number of races which are uncontested in both the primary and general election for state legislature does not provide voters with adequate choice.” said Rachael Fauss, Policy and Research Manager. “While voters may choose to support good incumbents, providing them with the option of considering other candidates can only promote healthy democracy.”
Citizens Union’s major findings from the report are below.  Additional charts and narrative explanations of Citizens Union’s findings are available in the full report.
1. The New York City Council Featured More Contested Races than the State Legislature

  • Uncontested Seats in both the Primary and General Election
    • In nearly 21 percent of state legislative seats in New York City, voters had no choice at the polls. The incumbent was the only candidate running for both the primary and general election.
    • City council seats, in contrast, were wholly uncontested in only about 9 percent of seats.
  • Primary Elections 

    • 56 percent of council seats had a contested primary, while less than one-third of state legislative primaries were contested. 
  • General Elections
    • City council races were contested 81 percent of the time, while state legislative seats representing the city were contested 75 percent of the time.  
    • Assembly races were contested only 72 percent of the time.
    • Senate races were about as competitive as races for the city council, contested 82 percent of the time.
2. City Council Primary Races Featured Greater Choice of Candidates

  • All Primary Election Races

    • City council primaries featured an average of about 4 candidates, while the vast majority of state legislative primaries featured only 2 candidates.
    • For the state senate and assemblyonly 2 candidates were on the ballot in more than two-thirds of primaries. In city council primary elections, only 33 percent of races had only 2 candidates.
  • Primary Elections with Incumbents

    • Incumbent primary elections also show that council elections featured greater voter choice and competition based on the number of candidates running for office. 41 percent of city council incumbent primaries featured only 2 candidates, versus over 80 percent of incumbent primaries in state legislative seats in the city which featured only 2 candidates.
    • Approximately 27 percent of incumbent primary re-election races for city council positions have featured four or more candidates. Only 4 percent of state assembly primaries with incumbents and no state senate incumbent primaries featured four or more candidates.

  • Open Seats 

    • Open city council primary elections featured an average of about 5 candidates per race.
    • Four or more candidates ran in approximately 76 percent of open city council elections.
    • Open state legislative races featured fewer candidates, with an average of 2 or 3 candidates.
3. Incumbents Are Re-Elected at Greater Rates for State Legislative Seats in New York City

  • Overall Re-Election Rate

    • Between 2005 and 2012, incumbents were re-elected in about 93 percent of city council races.
    • Incumbents in the state legislature from New York City were re-elected 97 percent of the time from 2006 to 2012.  
  • 2005 vs 2009 for City Council

    • Council races may have become more competitive due to the public match increase from 4-1 to 6-1 in 2009. 
    • Before this change was made, the incumbent re-election rate for city council incumbents was 97.7 percent, on par with the state legislative rate. 
    • After the public match increased, the incumbent re-election rate dropped by ten points to about 87 percent. The Council’s controversial vote on term limits was also a contributing factor, though public matching may have aided challengers in their efforts to unseat incumbents. 
 4Challengers are Able to Raise More Funds to Run Competitive Races at the City Level
  •  Funds Raised by Incumbents vs Challengers
    • At the state level in 2010, incumbents in the state had an approximately 2.3:1 financial advantage over their challengers.  
    • In city council races in 2009, the ratio of incumbent to challenger funds was much closer at 1.4:1, all while incumbents who participated in the program had similar access to public funds.

In order to address the lack of competition and to increase the choices voters have on election day, Citizens Union calls upon state government leaders to build on the successful model of the New York City campaign finance system through implementation of the following reforms:
  • Inclusion of a public matching program that empowers small donors;
  • Independent, effective enforcement to prevent violations of campaign finance law while assisting candidates in compliance;  
  • Reasonable contribution limits for individual candidates and political parties;
  • “Pay to play” limitations for contractors and lobbyists; and 
  • Robust disclosure of money in politics, from candidates, parties and independent political actors.

Citizens Union is a nonpartisan good government group dedicated to making democracy work for all New Yorkers. Citizens Union serves as a civic watchdog, combating corruption and fighting for political reform. We work to ensure fair and open elections, honest and efficient government, and a civically-engaged public.
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