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.
Those who say the two-party duopoly is not so great for the republic will not be heartened by developments in New York this week.
Jay Jacobs, the chairman of the Democratic Party in the fourth largest state, is pushing to effectively neutralize almost all of the Empire State's minor political parties. And his proposal seems to have the ear of others on a special commission charged with revising some aspects of election law by the end of the year.
His other ideas for eliminating third parties have not gone far. This one looks like it will.
The new Jacobs plan would increase fivefold, to about 250,000, the number of votes a political party needs to receive in one election in order to get a line on the ballot in the next one. Republicans and Democrats, who routinely draw more than 2 million votes each in statewide contests, are the only parties for which this would be no problem.
Last year was a really good year for placing democracy reform in the hands of the electorate. This year, not so much.
In the 2018 midterms, ballot proposals adopted in more than a dozen states and cities expanded the use of automatic voter registration, independent redistricting commissions, public financing of campaigns and other democracy reform proposals.
Next week's off-year election will see only a small roster of contests with an expansion of democracy itself on the ballot, and most have relatively narrow scope and limited reach.
But good-government advocates hope a wave of victories creates momentum for a more ambitious roster of proposals to get spots on the ballot alongside the 2020 presidential election.
And while the roster of pro-democracy choices may be limited this Nov. 5, the overall number of direct-democracy opportunities is large. Not since 2007 have so many ballot measures (three dozen) gone before voters in an odd-numbered year, according to Ballotpedia.
Below are the eight items on the ballot next week that good-government advocates are watching most intently — listed alphabetically by where the voting will take place. Four are initiatives in big cities and two are statewide referenda. The others are partisan elections for offices where the future of a reliable and relatable democracy is part of what's in the offing.
The campaign to make New York City the biggest jurisdiction in the country with ranked-choice voting is kicking in to a higher gear — and has been boosted by a bit of star power.
Early balloting begins Saturday in the nation's biggest city, which has long been beset by minimal political competition and correspondingly abysmal turnout. Advocates of so-called RCV predict a burst of democratic passion across the five boroughs if voters are permitted to list as many as five candidates for each office in order of preference, with a sort of instant runoff system producing the winner if no one secures an outright majority of first-place votes.
The system would be used for primaries and special elections starting in 2021 — the next contests for mayor, borough presidents, other citywide offices and City Council — if the referendum is approved in two weeks.
RCV advocates are hoping the publicity surrounding a victory in New York will boost momentum for their cause nationwide. While the system is used for local elections in nearly 20 cities, including San Francisco and Minneapolis, Maine is the only state that's adopted it for congressional races and the primary and general presidential elections. A ballot initiative that would make RCV the norm across Massachusetts is likely to get a vote a year from now.