In his inaugural speech, Governor Spitzer has called for "competitive elections." If he wants to have competitive elections in New York, then he will need to enact electoral reform in New York far greater than he has proposed. New York State law discourages citizens from even getting on the ballot, much less creating competition on election day. There is a great value in creating more competitive elections because other states have initiated such reforms have seen an increase in voter participation. Here are a baker's dozen ideas for how the system in New York can be reformed:
1. Add a civics class to the state-mandated school curriculum. Students learn a sanitized version of how a bill becomes a law in Washington DC, but they learn nothing about how to get elected to their local school board. The process needs to be de-mystified. Students need to learn how the petitioning process works to get candidates on the ballot. They should have field trips to see their local school board and town board meeting.
2. Mandate broadcast of town and county meetings. Federal law already gives towns the ability to negotiate with cable companies for a franchise agreement to operate in their municipality. It also includes the requirement for cable companies to provide a channel for government broadcasts. The next logical step is to mandate that the franchise agreements require the cable (and now telephone) companies to tape and broadcast town and county meetings. This would help de-mystify government meetings for the public at large by serving as a civics class for adults
3. Cut down on publicly-financed incumbent campaigning. Ban incumbent politicians from using public funds to mail to voters during election years. Ban incumbent politicians from giving "grants" in the six months prior to elections. Take politicians names off of public works projects. The politician's money did not pay for it; the taxpayers paid for it.
4. Open up the board of elections. Currently the board of elections is split down the middle between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. That means that the one-third of NYers who don't belong to either major political party, as well as Democrats and Republicans who want to primary their own party-machine's choice, have no one to go to get information from. One way to do serve all the voters is for each board to hire a third-party ombudsperson to service that constituency.
5. Count partisan media as campaign contributions. This past year, television stations decided to exclude Attorney General and US Senate candidates that had been previously included by the sponsoring League of Women Voters. The League withdrew their support because of this. When a media outlet chooses to include only some candidates in their debates or candidates guides, they are in essence contributing to the publicity of some candidates and not others. That should be reported as a campaign contribution to the parties given the exclusive invitation.
6. Simplify the petitioning process to get on the ballot. The current petitioning process to get on the ballot for a partisan office is a hyper-technical endeavor. To do it correctly (or to defend it against challenge) requires a team of lawyers and patronage workers. It should not be that difficult for a citizen to collect the support of their fellow citizens.
7. Equalize the number of signatures required on petitions. Currently, the average citizen has to collect 3,000 signatures to run for State Senate, while the major party choices (including the incumbent elected official) only needs to collect 1,000 signatures to get on the ballot. There is no reason for it to be three times as hard for the average citizen to get on the ballot as a major party choice.
8. Give everyone the same petitioning calendar. A voter's signature counts only once for getting a candidate on the ballot for each office. Whoever gets to the voter first gets to use her signature. Right now, major party candidates get to petition from late May until early July. Average citizens who want to run have to wait until that period is over before they are allowed to start petitioning. Every potential candidate should have the same opportunity to get signatures.
9. Increase the ways for political parties to be formed. The only method for a political party to be formed in NY is by getting 50,000 in the governor's race. One race, once every four years. Other States allow for multiple opportunities for political parties to be formed. For instance, the 50,000 threshold can be expanded to all statewide races -- President, Attorney General, US Senate, or Comptroller -- so that it is a real test of support, rather than luck in a single race.
10. Ban corporate contributions. Human beings elect public officials, not corporations. If individual stockholders want to contribute to political campaigns, they can do so with their profits. It should not be an expense of a corporation.
11. Institute Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). IRV is the method used to determine the Heisman Trophy, the Baseball MVP, and some municipal elections on California. You do not have play a game of voting for the single candidate you least hate to block the one you most hate. Instead you rank your choices. You can always vote for the candidate you love first. The winner has to get over fifty percent of the vote. If no one gets fifty percent on the first round, then the bottom votegetter drops off as voters' first choice and their second choice moves up. This removes the worry of spoilers and prevents negative campaigning since every candidate wants to be your second or third choice.
12. Institute public financing of campaigns. States that have clean money campaigning have found that the diversity of representation increases and the influence of lobbyists decreases. Legislators become much more productive since they only need to reach a minimum threshold of funding to be viable candidates. So our elected officials do not have to spend their entire term fundraising. Elections become much more public-oriented since the candidates can focus on the needs of the public, rather than the largest funders.
13. De-politicize legal notices. Town and county governments currently choose which will be the official newspapers for legal notices to be published in. This means that individuals are required to pay for advertising in only certain newspapers which are deemed the papers of record. This potentially warps the newspapers' coverage of the incumbents since the print media are vying for the exclusive income source created by being the paper of record. Newspapers should be freed of this unnecessary boondoggle so they can concentrate on their job as a marketplace of ideas. The papers of record should be chosen by a set of concrete benchmarks based on the circulation of the paper in relation to the population of the municipality.
Kimberly Wilder, and her husband Ian, live in North Babylon. Kimberly Wilder is currently serving her third term on the Executive Committee of the Green Party of New York State. Ian Wilder is the former co-chair of the Green Party of New York State. Both have run for office and worked on numerous campaigns.