Stop the presses: Albany is doing something right. And no, that’s not a typo.
Today, legislators will likely enact a slew of election reforms to bring New York in line with the rest of the country. Then, tomorrow, Gov. Cuomo outlines his annual budget, which should contain even more sweeping changes that would lead the nation. The democracy movement has arrived in the Empire State.
And it couldn’t come at a more urgent moment. Our elections are a mess. Campaign finance rules are notoriously lax. Turnout scrapes near the bottom nationwide. Last year, the executive director of the city Board of Elections claimed polling-place chaos was “the sign of a healthy and robust democracy.” Really?
New York has become a case study in what not to do. Recently North Carolina defended that state’s notorious voter suppression law. Their excuse: At least we are not as bad as New York.
Now there’s a chance for real change. Voters across the country made clear they want to revitalize our democracy. Candidates here ran with the same message. All key state leadership positions are held by people who have insisted they back reform.
They can make it happen, and they’ll have no excuse if they don’t.
The first move comes today. Most important: early voting and the first stage of changing the state Constitution to allow no-excuse absentee balloting.
Already, nationwide, one in three people vote before election day. Not here.
Legislators will also close a campaign finance loophole that lets funds flow from real estate titans and other corporate interests.
A very good start, and the first real progress on these issues in New York in decades. But we can’t just bump along. The biggest reforms remain to be done. They would vault New York to national leadership.
Most important: comprehensive campaign finance reform, a public financing system akin to New York City’s successful model. Small contributions would receive public matching funds. This would give ordinary citizens a louder voice, even in the face of super PACs and dark money.
New York would deliver the country’s most serious response to the Supreme Court’s erroneous Citizens United ruling, which opened the floodgates of money into our politics as never before.
Cuomo has championed this change for years and has indicated it would be in his budget plan. Now, for the first time, he has a sympathetic Legislature in both chambers. Campaign finance reform would be a significant legacy achievement.
The other necessary reforms not in today’s package would modernize voting. Automatic voter registration is now the law in 15 states, including New Jersey. It would add hundreds of thousands to the rolls, while improving accuracy and security. It’s a bold policy that would transform our elections.
And New York should finish the job of restoring voting rights for those with past criminal convictions.
The House of Representatives has made sweeping democracy reform a top priority. Sen. Chuck Schumer has pledged to fight for change in the Senate, too.
Now Albany has its turn. Will it lead, or will it lag?
We’re all cynical about the possibility of real reform. Politicians often flinch, and many don’t want it at all. But this is a rare moment, when people see that the best way to respond to attacks on democracy is to strengthen it.
One of New York’s greatest governors, Al Smith, said it best: “The only cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy.”