Ranked-choice voting won in NYC with dark money. A reformer wants to end that irony.
New York City's approval of ranked-choice voting was one of the year's biggest wins for democracy reformers. But the million-dollar push for the ballot measure was fueled by one of the institutions most reviled in "good governance" circles: dark-money groups.
Now one prominent lawmaker, with a proven record of tightening campaign finance rules in the nation's biggest city, has plans to prevent such an irony in the future.
City Councilman Brad Lander is readying legislation to expand the current disclosure requirements for donations in local elections to include ballot proposals. The transparency rules now mandate donor disclosures only for political messaging related to candidates. But that law's enactment was spearheaded five years ago by Lander, and the Brooklyn Democrat says it's time to close a loophole he left behind.
The most prominent item on the November ballot was a proposal to use the ranked-choice system, also known as the instant runoff, in primaries and special elections starting with the mayor's race next year. It was approved with 74 percent of the vote.
The Committee for Ranked Choice Voting NYC, the good-governance conglomerate responsible for most messaging on the issue, spent $986,017 on digital, television and direct mail advertising — capped in the campaign's final weeks with TV spots featuring Academy Award-winning actor Michael Douglas.
But none of these spots were required to include "paid for by" information, leaving the moneyed proponents of so-called RCV a mystery to most. Those curious enough to seek further information could learn how much the committee spent — but not where the money came from — using the city government's "Follow the Money" online portal.
Learning the identity of the donors required navigating the state Board of Elections website. It shows the committee received almost $2 million in contributions — 95 percent of which came from just five donors. The Action Now Initiative gave $1 million, but understanding the names behind that group requires another trip down the disclosure rabbit hole. Another $500,000 came from James and Kathryn Murdoch, a son and daughter-in-law of media mogul Rupert Murdoch who have recently signaled a willingness to invest big in democracy reform.
Lander's vision is to make it much easier to follow the money spent on local ballot measures by expanding his own legislation: In 2014, he pushed through a bill that created the first public disclosure of groups spending to influence campaigns for local office. The bill was enacted in response to the big-money influences seen a year earlier in the first mayoral race following the Supreme Court's Citizen United ruling, which allowed for unlimited spending in elections. Bill de Blasio was ultimately elected after an intense and expensive five-way Democratic primary.
Lander's vow to write a new bill came in recent days, after the NYC Campaign Finance Board asked the City Council to move such legislation.
"New York City has the country's strongest disclosure requirements and resources for independent expenditures. Unfortunately, when it comes to ballot proposals, our law has a blind spot," said Amy Loprest, the board's executive director.
Under the Lander proposal, donors to political groups would be listed on the city's "Follow the Money" portal, cutting out the need to visit two separate websites to reveal this information. And ballot measure ads would have to name the top three donors and direct voters to their website for more information.
- New York City will decide if ranked-choice voting will make it there ... ›
- Ranked-choice voting in New York boosted by Michael Douglas ... ›
In a partisan vote on an issue that once was bipartisan, House Democrats pushed through legislation Friday that would restore a key portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The Voting Rights Advancement Act passed the House 228-187, with all Democrats voting for the bill and all but one Republican, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, voting against it.
The bill faces virtually no chance of being considered in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Broadcasters are pushing back against the Federal Communications Commission after the agency made clear it wants broader public disclosure regarding TV political ads.
With the 2020 election less than a year away and political TV ads running more frequently, the FCC issued a lengthy order to clear up any ambiguities licensees of TV stations had regarding their responsibility to record information about ad content and sponsorship. In response, a dozen broadcasting stations sent a petition to the agency, asking it to consider a more narrow interpretation of the law.
This dispute over disclosure rules for TV ads comes at a time when digital ads are subject to little regulation. Efforts to apply the same rules for TV, radio and print advertising across the internet have been stymied by Congress's partisanship and the Federal Election Commission being effectively out of commission.
Laura Williamson says her career was shaped by growing up in North Carolina, which she describes as being historically at the center of the best and worst of American democracy. She spent seven years working with young people at progressive groups and got a master's in public affairs at Princeton before joining Demos in the summer of 2018. The think tank aims to combat "threats to democracy, racial equity and economic inclusion" and as a senior policy analyst she's focused on voter registration, voting rights, money in politics and civic participation. Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
What's democracy's biggest challenge, in 10 words or less?
Abolishing all disenfranchisement schemes and achieving an inclusive, multiracial democracy.
Describe your very first civic engagement.
Testifying at the North Carolina General Assembly against cuts to funding for vocational education. The woodworking classes I took throughout high school were among the most formative of my public school education, so as a high school senior I advocated for their continued funding to lawmakers in Raleigh.
What was your biggest professional triumph?
It's actually a triumph-in-progress. At Demos, we are privileged to work with powerful grassroots leaders redefining democracy and pushing the reform conversation across the country. Alongside these Inclusive Democracy Project leaders we are dreaming and scheming about what it would take to build a truly inclusive democracy — without limiting ourselves by what's perceived as politically feasible or reasonable — and to chart a radical reform agenda that meets the challenge. Our agenda is in progress and, like all real victories, is benefitting from the efforts of many smart and talented people. Stay tuned, it'll be ready for public consumption soon!
And your most disappointing setback?
They have always come after I've not listened well enough, have brought too much ego and taken things too personally, or not followed my gut about when a process or decision felt off.
How does your identity influence the way you go about your work?
I'm from North Carolina, where we pioneered multiracial, pro-justice fusion politics during Reconstruction, civil disobedience during the civil rights movement and franchise-expanding voting reforms since the 1990s. More recently, we have also been home to the vanguard of voter suppression and other democracy stifling tactics since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. I stand on the shoulders of giants and against the abdication of our identity as democracy leaders. I also do this work because, as a white woman, I know the exclusion of entire communities from our democracy was — and is still — led by my people and, often, in my name. I work every day to undo that legacy and ongoing reality.
What's the best advice you've ever been given?
Learn to simultaneously practice patience and show up with urgency in all the work I do.
Create a new flavor for Ben & Jerry's.
Impeaches and Cream
West Wing or Veep?
West Wing — for the sometimes-too-earnest belief that government can be a force for good, not the centrist politics!
What's the last thing you do on your phone at night?
Turn on do not disturb.
What is your deepest, darkest secret?
I'm deeply terrified by karaoke.
Lightman is a professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University.
With the 2020 election less than a year away, Facebook is under fire from presidential candidates, lawmakers, civil rights groups and even its own employees to provide more transparency on political ads and potentially stop running them altogether.
Meanwhile, Twitter has announced that it will not allow any political ads on its platform.
Modern-day online ads use sophisticated tools to promote political agendas with a high degree of specificity.
I have closely studied how information propagates through social channels and its impact on political messaging and advertising.
Looking back at the history of mass media and political ads in the national narrative, I think it's important to focus on how TV advertising, which is monitored by the Federal Communications Commission, differs fundamentally with the world of social media.