A new program seeking to boost small-dollar donations could reshape fundraising for political campaigns in the upcoming state election cycles.
The statewide Public Campaign Finance Program launched in November is already training candidates, campaign treasurers and anyone interested in geeking out about the finer details of public campaign finance in how the state’s public matching program works for candidates on the ballot next year and beyond. The program is expected to be discussed on Wednesday at a hearing in Albany on local governments.
That means candidates who register for the program and are certified by the Public Campaign Finance Board will be able to tap public matching funds for donations between $5 and $250 over an entire election cycle, incentivizing candidates and campaigns to court smaller contributions by a larger pool of people.
“The match on small donations lets candidates raise money with campaigning the way they do when they want votes — at barbecues, in the community, that kind of thing, instead of call time to people that can afford thousands of dollars,” said Ian Vandewalker, senior counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice's Elections and Government Program and a co-author of a report about the new system.
A joint analysis from the Brennan Center and OpenSecrets found that if the program’s new rules were applied to the most recent 2022 election cycle, small donors in state legislative contests would see their influence increase sixfold, making up a larger share than big-dollar donors.
The report found that small donors who contributed $250 or less to campaigns accounted for only 11% of the money to state legislative candidates in 2022. But if the matching program was in effect and candidates opted in, small donor contributions to local candidates would make up to 67% of the state legislative fundraising.
Vandewalker argues that the change in how campaign contributions are weighed “increases the connection between constituents and the people that represent them in Albany.”
Here’s how the new system works.
Who is eligible?
The state program is open to candidates for running for state Assembly and Senate races starting in 2024, but that fundraising period began the day after last year’s election. Candidates running in statewide contests for comptroller, attorney general, lieutenant governor and governor will be able to opt into the public matching system for races in 2026 and beyond.
What donations will be able to get a boost from state money?
The matching formula only applies to contributions from people who live within the district the candidate is trying to represent. For statewide races, donations must come from New York state residents.
How much money could a small donation pay out to a candidate?
Brace yourself for some math.
Donations up to $250 will be matched by state funds. For the first $50 contributed, the state will match every $1 with $12. That means if you donate $5 to a campaign, the campaign will get $60 from the state. For the next $100, the state will match every $1 with $9 in public funds. For the remaining $100, every dollar donated results in $8 in matching funds. That means a $250 in-district donation could be eligible for $2,300 in public matching funds for a maximum of $2,550 to a campaign.
For statewide contests, there is no sliding scale. The matching formula is $6-to-$1, for a potential $1,500 public matching funds on a $250 in-state contribution for a maximum match of $1,750.
There are also caps for how much money the program will pay out based on the office. Additional limits may be imposed based on the competitiveness of the candidates.
Has anyone signed up for this new program?
So far, 15 candidates have registered for the program, the first step toward qualifying for matching funds. Only two are not current elected officials.
The only statewide candidate currently registered and certified is Thomas DiNapoli, the state comptroller. He co-wrote an editorial with state Sen. Zellnor Myrie and Karen Wharton of Citizen Action, a left-leaning grassroots advocacy organization, drawing attention to the program's potential benefits.
“The new system boosts the value of small contributions from ordinary donors, enabling candidates, both incumbents and challengers, to spend their time connecting with and hearing from the people they seek to represent, as opposed to courting wealthy out-of-district contributors,” the trio wrote.
Although Myrie is not currently enrolled in the program, a spokesperson said he plans to participate in it.
Is the state facing any problems getting this plan off the ground?
The PCFB did face some initial bureaucratic hurdles a year ago finding space for staff to locate as they built up the program. A spokesperson for the agency did not respond to a question about that issue, but the agency is building out its staff.
Another potential hurdle was funding for the program. In Gov. Kathy Hochul’s most recent budget proposal, the PCFB received a significantly smaller budget allocation than they were seeking.
The board requested $114.5 million: $14.5 million for administration and $100 million for the campaign finance fund. The governor is proposing to give the board just above what it asked for administrative costs, but $25 million for the fund.
“This program is an investment in democracy,” said Barbara Lifton, the PCFB's chair. “This program ensures that our democratic elections are fair and representative by reducing the appearance of corruption, by reducing the influence of wealthy donors, by increasing voter participation and representation, and by providing an opportunity for candidates to run for office who would otherwise be unable to run for office due to the high cost.”
A spokesperson for the governor said her office remains supportive of the program.
“Gov. Hochul is committed to restoring trust in government, and that includes ensuring the Public Campaign Finance Board has the resources it needs to fulfill its obligations under the law,” said Hazel Crampton-Hays, the governor’s press secretary.
Detailed instructions about how to register and apply for the program, along with monthly webinars, are available at the PCFB’s website.