A Call for Election Reform, Beginning with New York

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In a 2011 speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, civil rights hero and Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.) eloquently described attacks across the country on Americans' access to the ballot box: "Voting rights are under attack in America. There's a deliberate and systematic attempt to prevent millions of elderly voters, young voters, students, minority and low-income voters from exercising their constitutional right to engage in the democratic process."

Across the country, powerful forces that can't win on their message have decided to simply restrict the voting rights of people who oppose them. It's a direct affront to the American ideal of one person, one vote.

But it's not just restrictions at the ballot box that are impugning our democracy--the flood of special interest cash drowning out the voices of everyday Americans is also endangering a government that is purportedly of, by, and for the people.

Deep-pocket interests drive the law-making agenda on issues that range from gun violence to our unfair tax system to the availability of decent jobs.

About one quarter of one percent of Americans make donations to political candidates in a given election cycle. Seventy percent of that campaign money comes from donors giving $200 or more, a number out of reach for many Americans. As the cost of campaigns has soared, this small group of campaign funders has become increasingly important to politicians seeking re-election.

Which means, as the New York-based think tank, Demos, wrote in a recent report, "As private interests have come to wield more influence over public policy, with ever larger sums of money shaping elections and the policymaking process, our political system has become less responsive to those looking for a fair shot to improve their lives and move upward."

More simply: the political inequality built into our current campaign finance system skews the debate, making the most powerful more powerful.

That's why the NAACP and Public Campaign see protecting voting rights and remaking our pay-to-play campaign finance system as two sides of the same coin. People who think that money should have the primary voice in our society try to buy as many votes as they can. When that's not good enough, they increasingly invest in suppressing the voices of those most likely to object opposed to their agenda.

When we think about comprehensive strategy to expand the voices of everyday people, we can't be focused just on access to the ballot box, we've got to be as focused on raising the voices of everyday people in the political process through common sense campaign finance legislation.

Right now, New York State is at the center of the campaign finance debate and Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature have an opportunity to pass the first big campaign finance policy victory since the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision in 2010.

At the core of the debate in Albany is a plan to empower small dollar donors through public matching funds. Modeled on the successful and popular New York City system, if passed, this "Fair Elections" system would allow participating candidates to run competitive campaigns for office by relying on small dollar donations. A $50 contribution becomes $350; super sizing the power of everyday people.

Hundreds of candidates in places like Arizona, Connecticut, and Maine have been able to run and win elected office using a similar public financing system. Schoolteachers, farmers, waitresses, and others without access to wealthy donors have won seats in these states. They arrive in office indebted not to check-bundling lobbyists but to their constituents.

It's a policy that could have a very real impact on the tawdry way political business is conducted in New York and it's a victory that could make waves across the country.

As Gov. Cuomo said in March, "when you make a change in New York, it is a change that resonates across the country. We changed the marriage equality law, I saw within weeks, the change reverberate across the country. ...When New York does something other states follow."

He's right. It's why national organizations like the NAACP, Public Campaign, Sierra Club, CWA, MoveOn, CREDO, Public Citizen, and scores of other organizations have engaged in the fight. It's why House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi told Gov. Cuomo that New York "is the best shot [in the country] of getting campaign-finance reform done this year."

Ensuring everyone has the ability to make his or her voice heard at the ballot box is critical to the health of our democracy. Ensuring those voices are heard above big donors and special interest influence peddlers after Election Day is crucial too.

New York has an opportunity to be a national leader in living up to the ideal of a government that is of, by and for the people. Gov. Cuomo and legislative leaders should not waste this opportunity.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, Public Campaign, and Fair Elections for New York in an effort to raise the voices of everyday people in New York State through comprehensive reform of the way elections are financed. For more information on Public Campaign, click here; for more information on Fair Elections for New York, click here.

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