All right, it’s just a special election, but the City Council contests in Brooklyn and Staten Island on February 20 might be more significant than you think. For one thing, they might be the last time voters in New York City use old-fashioned lever machines. For another, they are the first elections under the new law that makes contributions from lobbyists ineligible for public matching funds. Somebody out there thinks these off-year races are worth winning: At least 10 people have certified their candidacies to the Campaign Finance Board for the District 40 race to replace now-Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, with at least two others believed to be in the mix. In now-State Senator Andrew Lanza’s old District 51, two hats are in the ring.
The contests are also the first for new CFB executive director Amy Loprest, and they come as her agency deals with a December 19 appellate court ruling, which ruled that a loophole in the city’s campaign finance laws deprives the CFB of a power it thought it possessed: the ability to fine individual candidates and campaign treasurers when they fail to spend public matching funds properly or to document that they have. Since campaigns usually cease to exist after an election, going after personal pocketbooks is the only way for the CFB to give some of its rules teeth. But the court found the law doesn’t allow it. Now the CFB and Law Department are considering whether to appeal. Meanwhile, the CFB is discussing with the City Council how to fix the law to close the loophole.
Other areas of campaign finance law that might need tweaking include what to do about contributions from firms that “do business” with the city, or candidates who face little real opposition but still take public matching funds. There’s always been talk about barring contributions from all organizations—LLCs, PACs, and unions. Then there’s the notion of eliminating the complicated exemptions in campaign finance law. Right now the money that candidates spend on petitioning or complying with the law doesn’t count against the spending cap, but identifying which money is exempt and which isn’t is tricky: Witness Gifford Miller‘s battle with the CFB during the twilight of his mayoral campaign.
But back to the special election. I say that it might be the last election for lever voting machines because New York State was supposed to finally replace those machines, as every other state already has, by the 2007 primary (for these council seats and district attorney races, if needed). But difficulties in getting the voting machine companies to meet New York’s high standards, and recent revelations that the state’s testing firm failed to win accreditation from federal authorities, may delay the switch. “Right now the window for us to do full implementation in 2007 is impossible, or nearly impossible,” says Board of Elections director John Ravitz. So February 20 could be the last hurrah for the lever machines, or the start of a comeback tour of uncertain duration.
Either way, we know the city will be anxiously watching!