What Does NYC Know About Elections that the Rest of Us Don’t?

June 06, 2016

Money being put into a box marked vote

There were some pretty awesome things coming out of New York City in the 1980’s. MTV. Ghostbusters. The Beastie Boys. It was a great time to be a New Yorker. It was also the decade that our co-founders came up with New York Super Fudge Chunk, so, you’re welcome, New York.


One other pretty amazing thing to come out of New York in that decade: NYC’s matching funds program. We know, it doesn’t sound as exciting as Ghostbusters and the Beastie Boys, but when it comes to funding elections fairly, it actually is pretty exciting. Because instead of candidates hosting fundraiser after fundraiser to court big dollars from big donors, this system encourages candidates to engage with real New Yorkers. (We like to think a few pints of New York Super Fudge Chunk aided in coming up with such a great idea, but, alas, we’ll never know.)

Sound too good to be true? Like a fantasy that couldn’t possibly work? Wondering what the catch is?


This is how this magical program works: candidates who opt in (it’s not mandatory) have an incentive to get lots of small donations from average New Yorkers, instead of a few huge money bombs from wealthy donors. Because for every small donation, the city tacks on up to $1,050 in public funds:

A NYC matching funds chart

The math is simple and groundbreaking: the city will match individual donations at a $6-to-$1 rate, up to $175 per individual. For example, a $50 contribution would get a $300 match, for a total contribution of $350. That’s huge. No other public matching fund program in the country comes close.


That means that candidates for office have a huge incentive to reach out to as many New Yorkers as they can and truly represent their constituents’ values, rather than those of a few wealthy benefactors. In fact, there’s a threshold of local support that candidates are required to reach in order to be eligible to receive funds. It also means that, given the size of the electorate in the city, candidates themselves needn’t be independently wealthy to stage a run for office. That 6-to-1 ratio can really add up.


The results have been amazing. In the 2013 election, more than 90% of the total funds raised by candidates for city offices came from individuals, not PACs or unions. And two-thirds of the donations were $175 or less. When candidates get money from ordinary people, they are more likely to fight for ordinary people’s priorities.


The matching funds program amplifies every New Yorker’s voice. Even small donations speak more loudly, thanks to the public funding match.

According the program website, New York is also seeing an increase in campaign contributors. In the 2013 election, “more than 44,500 New Yorkers — half of all NYC contributors to participating candidates — made a contribution to a city candidate for the first time.” And 75% of them donated $175 or less.

More voices, and new voices, make for a better democracy. And diversity in the electorate can lead to a more diverse roster of candidates, strengthening the bond between citizens and their would-be leaders. Any candidate that wins a race backed by small donations will be accountable to those small donors, not wealthy special interests.

Studies have shown that while the program is voluntary, an overwhelming number of candidates participate (in 2013, 90% of the candidates in the primaries opted in, as did 75% of the candidates in the general election).


New Yorkers are learning that their voice can be heard, their opinion counts, and their support can make a difference. An almost antiquated idea is starting to take root: their leaders work for them and should represent their interests.

Candidates are learning that the way to win in New York City is to drum up as much support as they can, as early as they can, from their neighbors and local constituents. They really need to get out there and talk to ordinary people, listen to them, spend time with them, and get to know their needs, their challenges, and their priorities—which, in the context of today’s national Big Money trends, sounds downright revolutionary.


All this good news, as well as studies touting the program’s effectiveness, led Governor Andrew Cuomo to propose a similar matching funds program for the entire state of New York, but the legislation so far hasn’t gone anywhere.

Nonetheless, the Brennan Center for Justice sees New York City’s program as a model for the nation. How many other solutions have you heard about that increase voter participation, amplify voters’ voices, and encourage candidates to turn away from super PACs and big-time donors?

All we’re saying is, we wouldn’t mind seeing a lot more good news like this.