Monday, February 28, 2011

Executives, Clergy, and Former Politicians Agree on Voter Owned Elections

The Wall Street Journal reported today that a bipartisan group of leaders from the business community, clergy members, and former politicians have united in support of curbing the influence of special interests in New York State by creating a system of "voter owned elections" through voluntary public financing. The group wrote Gov. Andrew Cuomo Friday, calling on him to work with closely with the legislature to create a public financing system similar to New York City’s which has increased competition, grassroots campaigning and citizen participation. We have previously blogged on the urgent need for public financing in New York.

“Real change can’t happen in Albany until we limit the torrent of special interest money flowing into incumbents’ coffers and create a public funding system that will provide a real alternative for candidates from the current status quo of money and politics,” the group wrote Gov. Cuomo last Friday.

The prominent bipartisan list of signatories include U.S. Senators Bill Bradley and Bob Kerrey, three former members of the U.S. House of Representatives, former Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission under George W. Bush, former New York City Mayor Edward Koch, Chief Counsel at Brennan Center for Justice Frederick A.O. Schwarz, Jr., Seagram’s former President Edgar Bronfman, Sr., Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, former Fordham University President Father Joseph O’Hare, New York State NAACP President Hazel N. Dukes, among others.

New York’s campaign finance laws are at least 30 years out of date. A recent NYPIRG analysis on our state’s sky high contribution limits further highlights the weaknesses of our campaign finance laws as special interest money continues to flood into our state. As we argue in our recent study on ethics, if there is any hope of changing the culture in Albany we must start by changing the way we finance elections.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Was New York Ready for Paper Ballots?

When New York made its long drawn out phase away from ancient lever machines to electronic voting machines, it opted for a system of paper ballots counted using optical scanners. Among the main benefits of a paper ballot system, is the ability to have paper trail in case there is a need for a recount. The only problem seems to be that Albany forgot to tell us when there is a need for a recount.

As Celeste Katz at Daily News points out, there are no mandatory recount laws under New York State Election Law. The problems of the vagueness of this law were highlighted last week. Trailing by 15 votes, Frank Skartados conceded the 100 Assembly District race to Tom Kirwan. As the article points out, a hand recount of the ballots will likely reveal numerous discrepancies of how the optical scanners recorded voters’ choices on the paper ballots -- certainly more than 15. Unfortunately, we will never know.

The uncertainty surrounding the outcome of this race could have only been cleared up by examining the ballots themselves. What is the point in having paper ballots when we are unable to look at the results? Without rules for mandatory recounts, in this respect New York Election Law still remains in the dark ages of the lever machines. Legislators in Albany must make the necessary changes in Election Law that will create rules for mandatory recounts.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Meaningful Ethics Reforms for the “New” Albany

Emphasizing the core reforms that are necessary to reform Albany, the Brennan Center released a study today on ethics reform. The study, released alongside a letter to Governor Cuomo, analyzes the failed experiment of New York’s legislation on ethics in 2007, recent political corruption scandals, and unregulated special interest money that has plagued the State.

The study recommends that the Governor work closely and publicly with the legislature to pass a new ethics bill that will comprehensively address our state’s core problems. The Brennan Center calls for an ethics bill that will create an independent unified ethics commission, establish financial disclosure requirements of all outside income for public officials, and establish a system of public financing of elections. These reforms will guide our State down a much needed path towards reform.

The full study is available here.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Civic Groups to City Board: Do not discontinue postage-paid voter registration forms

Yesterday, a coalition of civic groups urged the New York City Board of Elections to continue its practice of printing and distributing postage-paid voter registration forms. The City Board has been considering a recommendation that the practice be discontinued, but the Commissioners of the Board have yet to publicly consider the matter.

The letter urges that this important matter be subject to public debate and consideration. The groups, including the Brennan Center, raise concerns over the likely discriminatory effect this will have on low income and minority voters who are more likely to mail in their registration forms. “The postage-paid policy is a small expense to ensure broad and equal access to the franchise,” the letter says.

To read the full letter, click here.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Another Call for a Unified Ethics Commission and Client Disclosure

The New York State Bar Association has joined the chorus of good government groups calling for broad reforms to New York State’s ethics laws. In a lengthy report, the NYSBA Task Force on Government Ethics calls for the creation of a single ethics overseer with jurisdiction over the executive branch, the legislature, and lobbyists. Notably, the NYSBA report also calls for more comprehensive disclosure of sources of outside income: “Source of income disclosure should be broadened to include both direct and indirect sources of income,” thus joining the Brennan Center, the New York City Bar Association and others in seeking meaningful financial disclosure from public officials, including those who work as attorneys.

Calls for reform consistently note that there are times when client disclosure is not appropriate, such as instances where the client is a minor or involved in an undisclosed matrimonial matter. Regrettably, we do not agree with the Task Force’s recommendation that the decision about whether to redact a client’s name could be made solely by the public official who serves as her attorney, and that this decision would not be subject to review by the ethics commission (p. 24-25). Other states with comprehensive client disclosure have instituted adequate redaction review procedures for their public officials that more fairly balance privacy concerns with the public interest.

Also, we disagree with the Task Force when it states, without explanation, that

“Attorneys should not be subject to the requirement that income derived from a particular representation be stated by income category. Disclosure that the attorney has received income above the reporting threshold from the client is sufficient, and lessens the intrusion into the attorney-client relationship.”

Public officials who are also attorneys should not be given this unique and unnecessary privilege from a transparency law. Secret fees paid to our public officials are the exact issue that needs to be addressed by a new, better law.