Procedure and Participation: How the Rules Affect the Game

A study analyzes how specific rules, in this case New York City’s “matching funds” program, affects the demographic and socioeconomic diversity of what groups choose to participate and contribute to campaigns.

The Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case was largely predicated on theoretical concerns about free speech and First Amendment rights.  One of the key criticisms of the ruling was its failure to account for how the rules affect other important components of the electoral process, such as voter participation. New York City’s public financing matching program, in which contributions up to $150 are matched 6-1, is one example of how regulatory policy can have a positive effect on desirable outcomes; in this case, by increasing participation and expanding the diversity of the voter base.

A recent study conducted by the Campaign Finance Center and New York University compared the state’s campaign finance system to the city’s system in order to see which appeared better suited to encourage (rather than suppress) participation among all demographic and socioeconomic groups.  It determined that by encouraging small dollar donations, the city’s matching program provided candidates a greater incentive to reach out to a greater variety of voters, which had a positive impact on participation rates of diverse groups.

The report’s co-authors conclude: “the city’s public financing system appears to have achieved one of its key goals — strengthening the connections between public officials and their constituents.”  The apparent success of the program has led to discussion of extending the policy to statewide elections in New York.

To be sure, reconciling the abstract nature of First Amendment concerns, with the realistic effect of how rules impact the behavior of both candidates and voters, is no easy task. However, it is perhaps our role as practitioners that lead us to conclude that the methods of one over the other seem more appealing and  beneficial to promoting a free and fair democratic electoral process.

Article Link: Study: Public Financing Contributes to Greater Diversity of Participation in NYC Elections


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