The 2019-2020 legislative session was one of the busiest in history, with historic reforms finally passing after years of advocacy. Citizens Union was at the forefront of many of these legislative victories, ranging from election reform to census funding.
Voting and Elections
Key election reforms that Citizens Union has been working towards for years, were adopted and have begun to come into effect. The first of these packages, signed by Governor Cuomo in January of 2019, included early voting, the consolidation of local and federal primary elections into a single election day, voter registration mobilization, and the pre-registration of 16 and 17 year-olds. This package also made major strides towards two additional reforms by voting for the first passage for same day voter registration and no excuse absentee voting. Both require constitutional amendments, and they will need to pass through the legislature again in 2021 and then be approved through a statewide referendum. Additional 2019 voting reforms included a shortened party enrollment deadline, electronic poll books, implementation of new easy-to-use voter friendly ballots and online voter registration, which will begin in 2021. New York City saw a major election reform when voters adopted ranked choice voting for municipal elections in the November 2019 election.
However, election reform took one step back when the legislature decided to severely restrict ballot access as part of a political “deal” that allowed for campaign finance reform to be passed. The vote threshold to become a party and the petition requirements for independent candidates drastically increased, and parties are now required to win those votes every two years, including in presidential elections when they are naturally less involved. Citizens Union opposes this change, which will effectively eliminate small parties in the state, and will fight to reverse it in the next legislative session.
The fight to reduce the corrosive impact of money in New York State politics saw significant changes this past year, with the passage of the biggest campaign finance reform in decades. Approved by the legislature in the 2021 budget following the recommendations of a 2019 blue-ribbon commission, the reform sets up a new public matching system on small donations, for candidates running for legislative and state-wide offices, and also significantly lowers individual contribution limits. Citizens Union has been deeply troubled by the flaws of the new system. Its administration has been assigned to the inadequate State Board of Elections, the option to make huge contributions and accumulate large “war chests” has not been curtailed, and no restrictions on donations from those doing business with the state have been included in the reform. Most of the changes will not take effect until the elections for the legislature in 2024 and for statewide offices in 2026.
Another important reform for our campaign finance system, and a longstanding Citizens Union legislative priority, was the closing of the so-called LLC loophole, by which Limited Liability Corporations were able to donate to political campaigns according to restrictions on individuals rather than corporations. The new legislation, signed by Governor Cuomo in January 2019, mandates that LLCs be treated as corporations and therefore face the same regulations, including an aggregate limit of $5,000 a year, and a requirement that individuals who control LLCs have that corporation’s donations prorated to count towards their own individual contribution limits.
In 2018, a special state commission instated limits on outside income for state lawmakers of up to 15% of their government salary, in conjunction with a pay raise for elected officials and state agency commissioners, to be phased over three years. However, a series of lawsuits ultimately struck down the outside-income cap, which the judges declared to be outside the commission’s purview, and invalidated the planned salary changes beyond the first year increase, as they were tied to the cap.
Citizens Union successfully advocated for the city and state to fund the 2020 census, allocating $40M in the NYC budget and $30M in the state budget for census outreach and work. We also have been working with elected officials and civic leaders to create a comprehensive outreach plan to ensure that we have an accurate census count in 2020. While the COVID-19 pandemic upended many census advocacy plans, work has shifted and continues forward.
The 2020 census will determine—for the next 10 years—federal funding for such programs as food assistance to needy families, early childhood education for low-income children and maintenance for our bridges and roads, as well as the number of congressional seats the state has and how political districts are drawn. New York is filled with hard to count communities, including immigrants, non-English speaking New Yorkers and children.
The nationwide outbreak of COVID-19 in early March of this year presented unique challenges to state government operations. After the budget was approved on April 3, the legislature did not reconvene, either remotely or in Albany, to review or pass any legislation until May 26. During this time, Governor Cuomo issued a series of Executive Orders related to the June Primary elections, including: reducing the signature threshold to get on the ballot, allowing absentee voting for all voters, making absentee ballot applications available electronically, and mailing the application to all registered voters. After reconvening, the Assembly did little on election reform, but did pass legislation to enable an electronic application for absentee voting through the end of 2020.
The legislature took few steps to address police accountability and transparency over the past two years. However, at the time of writing, lawmakers announced they would reconvene to pass a package of legislation on the issue, amid widespread protests following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. One of the bills considered is a repeal to Section 50-a of the Civil Rights Law, which prevents disclosure of any documents relating to the disciplinary records of police officers. Citizens Union has advocated for this measure for years. It will not only bring much needed transparency and accountability to the state’s police departments, but to the public as well.