A boost to increase trust in government (Photo: Edwin J. Torres/Office of the Mayor)
Of all the pressing problems facing New York City – rising crime, economic stagnation, high taxes, rising homelessness, crumbling infrastructure and poor sanitation – one fundamental problem is at the heart: the lack of confidence in our government and our institutions to address and resolve these issues. problems.
Trust has been shattered because the government appears corrupt, indecipherable and motivated to benefit special interests, insiders and their allies. New York’s future depends on restoring its ability to create and implement policy that truly meets the needs of the public. To restore public confidence and reduce the cynicism that has led to extremely low voter turnout, we must have the will and the commitment to enact long overdue reforms.
Here are several recommendations:
1) Do a non-partisan redistricting:
In New York’s recent redistricting debacle, the state Supreme Court ruled that the Democrats’ gerrymandering plan failed to follow constitutionally required procedures to ensure a nonpartisan redistricting process.
Democrats drew maps in January 2022, after the new bipartisan independent redistricting commission failed to complete its work. The Court threw away those maps and hired an independent third party to redraw the districts.
This could have been avoided if the commission’s membership was initially made up of independent members such as judges, law professors, retired civil servants and political scientists, rather than political party appointees. The word gerrymandering implies that the system is rigged. A truly independent redistricting commission will ensure voters’ confidence that the system used to elect representatives works and is fair and that it is not rigged to favor any particular political party or other interest.
2) Expand Ranked Choice Voting (RCV):
The RCV allows voters to have more of a say in who is elected. Effective and more representative, it was introduced in the June 2022 mayoral primary elections in New York City after 73% of city voters backed a 2019 ballot measure proposed by a city charter commission. It should be extended to all regional elections.
Under the current “win-win” system, candidates often win with far less than a majority of votes. Voters are often faced with having to choose between their preferred candidate and a “safe” choice. Under RCV, even if the desired candidate loses, the lower-ranked picks still help decide the outcome. The winners reflect a broader consensus among voters.
New York City offers an excellent model for broader implementation.
3) Implement the last five open primaries:
Turnout in the New York primaries is extremely low. In the recent June 2022 primaries for governor and state assembly, less than 14 percent of those registered voted. In national elections, New York and other states with closed primaries have significantly lower turnout than states with open primaries.
An open primary system would empower more than 2.7 million “independent” voters in our state, including more than 400,000 military veterans, and free parties from being bound and beholden to their most extreme influences. Diversity of opinion and thought would once again be inflamed within parties, as voters can participate in the elections that matter. When trust in the system itself is restored, we can expect to see significantly higher voter turnout.
New York is one of 14 states in which at least one political party administers closed primaries for federal and state elections. To implement open primaries for these elections, state election law must be changed.
For the New York elections, we need to go directly to voters with a ballot initiative. “Final Five” the vote will combine ranked voting with open primaries.
4) Develop mechanisms for ballot initiatives and referendums:
Ballot initiatives and referendums, permitted in 26 states, allow voters to bypass the state legislature by placing proposed statutes and constitutional amendments on the ballot. These measures reduce voter disengagement and can contribute to greater turnout by signaling to voters that their vote will directly affect the outcome of a particular issue.
In New York, voters do not have the power to initiate referendums and statewide initiatives. Several attempts to introduce voter referenda in New York City have failed.
Additionally, 19 states have adopted recall mechanisms, which have been effective in holding elected officials accountable for doing the job for which they were elected.
5) Enact effective campaign finance reforms:
State and city election commissions need independent oversight to ensure transparency and trust.
“Doing Business Restrictions” are to be enacted statewide to largely prohibit campaign donations from individuals or entities that do business with the government. We must finally end the “pay to play” mindset in Albany and the possibility of unlimited donations influencing contracts, grants and other government decisions.
Contribution levels should be reviewed annually. State contribution levels are far too high, even in the new campaign finance system that will be instituted in the upcoming elections, allowing big donors to retain outsized influence. These rules must be developed according to today’s ethical issues and lessons learned from the past.
New York is dealing with the adverse effects of the 2010 Supreme Court ruling overturning 100 years of campaign finance restrictions in Citizens United v FEC. We can strengthen donor transparency requirements and expand successful matching funds and “dollar democracy” programs in other states. Programs to reward voters by providing matching vouchers to
being given to the political candidate of one’s choice can counter voter apathy, while broadening candidate pools.
6) Empowering truly independent ethics agencies:
Government watchdog groups like the League of Women Voters have been calling for ethics reform for cities and states for decades, but the efforts still fail. Truly independent commissions empowered to adopt comprehensive integrity and conflict of interest policies, as well as mechanisms to enforce them, will restore institutional trust.
Governor Hochul and the state legislature recently replaced the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) with the “Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government,” but their reforms failed because this new entity is still populated by political appointees without the independence to hold elected officials to the highest standards. The governor’s own ethical issues regarding funding for the Buffalo Bills stadium and the Penn Station redevelopment deals have not helped instill confidence in the way she has implemented reforms and led government.
The New York City Conflict of Interest Board (COIB) should be replaced with independent individuals with enforcement powers free from political influence. Currently, its members are appointed by elected officials, including the mayor, comptroller and public advocate.
Former mayor Bill de Blasio repeatedly ignored advice and warnings from the council, including in relation to his fundraising efforts, which created “the appearance of coercion and abusive access”. Still, de Blasio faced no punishment from a board made up of his own appointees. City Comptroller Brad Lander recently sought advice from the board, including an appointee, on whether he was facing any conflicts in his office’s approval of contracts between the city and the members of a non-profit umbrella group run by his wife. These actions and issues undermine the credibility of the Conflict of Interest Committee to act independently and fairly, and diminish public trust.
Good government groups have rightly suggested a firewall between elected officials and appointees to ethics commissions. Elected leaders simply shouldn’t have a say in who gets appointed to the entities that oversee them. A truly independent ethics committee should be appointed by a nomination commission composed of trusted, qualified and experienced third parties, such as deans of law schools, presidents of bar associations and judges, whose independence has been verified.
This autonomous panel would be empowered to draft and enforce protocols that follow best practices for rule compliance and conflicts of interest, with full public disclosure of every investigation.
This list is not exhaustive of everything that needs to be done to restore faith and trust in government, but even these pragmatic and reasonable recommendations will require considerable willpower to implement.
Elected leaders have been fighting real reform for decades, and it’s time to elect candidates who aren’t afraid to demand global action. Government will be much more efficient with more democratic elections and proper rules in place to ensure it operates with honesty and integrity.
By Sal Albanese & Maria Danzilo. On Twitter @SalAlbaneseNYC & @Maria4Dist6.