Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver today introduced a pair of bills to institute early voting in New York State and require independent expenditures to be subject to state disclosure rules thereby enabling voters to learn the source of money being spent on behalf of candidates.
"Our democracy thrives when we have as many citizens as possible participating in the electoral process," said Silver (D-Manhattan). "With the deluge of money being spent on campaigns today, it is especially important for voters to know who is behind campaign messages so they can fairly evaluate them. Taken together, these two measures will encourage voter access and participation and help create a more informed electorate."
Silver noted the new measures build on the Assembly's strong commitment to election reform.
"These proposals would give New York's voters a far stronger voice and help level the playing field in the electoral process," said Silver. "Our elections must be fair, open, honest and accessible, and encourage as many citizens to vote as possible. These measures are common sense reforms and I hope the Senate and Governor will join us in making our democracy as accessible as possible."
Bringing Early Voting to New York (A.689)
Silver noted that experts estimate that voter participation in November was barely 46 percent and exceeded turnout of just two other states.
In order to encourage more voter participation and decrease waits and lines at polling places, Silver introduced a bill to institute early voting for all General, Primary, and Special elections in New York. If enacted, New York would join 32 other states and the District of Columbia that already permit an alternative to in-person voting on election days. Voters would be permitted to vote at designated locations beginning 14 days prior to any general election and seven days prior to any primary or special election.
Under the bill, each County Board of Elections and the Board of Elections of the City of New York must designate at least five polling places for voters to cast an early ballot. Polls will be open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day during the early voting period, including Saturdays and Sundays, and ballots cast during the early voting period will be counted at the close of the polls on Election Day and included in the election night tally.
"This measure will provide welcome relief from long lines on election days," said Assembly Election Law Committee Chair Michael Cusick (D-Staten Island). "Early voting also greatly reduces barriers for people with disabilities and gives all voters greater flexibility. I commend the Speaker for introducing this bill and further strengthening the Assembly's commitment to open and accessible elections for all who wish to participate in our democracy."
Increased Disclosure of Independent Expenditures (A.690)
Over the past several years, New York has witnessed the increased activity of third-party campaign communications that expressly advocate for the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate or ballot measure. Because these communication and advocacy efforts do not explicitly originate from a candidate, campaign or political party, it is often difficult for the average voter to determine the source of the message.
Silver also introduced legislation to ensure that entities engaged in express advocacy of candidates are subject to the same registration and disclosure provisions that are now required of candidates and their campaigns. Under current law, New York requires financial disclosure only for organizations engaging in election-related communications which advocate for or against candidates using specific language.
Many times, independent expenditures will avoid disclosure requirements by using alternate language which has not been specifically detailed under current law. This measure adopts a "functional equivalent" standard for all election-related communication and subjects it to disclosure requirements even if the communication doesn't use the specific language outlined under current law.
"This bill would close a loophole in New York's campaign finance law that allows for undisclosed unlimited spending by third parties in political campaigns," said Silver. "These political messages, which are independent of a candidate and are not subject to the disclosure requirements, can distort the focus of a campaign. Voters have the right to know who is targeting them and what their agenda is. They have a right to know where this money comes from and how it is spent."
The current structure allows corporations, industry groups, wealthy activists, unions and other special interests to participate directly in campaigns through unlimited independent expenditures so long as they define themselves as issue advocates and do not use certain words.
Unlike official campaigns and traditional political action committees, independent expenditure committees can accept unlimited contributions.
"Too often we are subjected to third party political advertisements that clearly advocate for or against a candidate," said Cusick. "However, under the current system, the funding sources behind some of these advertisements are unknown. All candidates are subject to disclosure requirements, therefore it is time for us to close this loophole and make all involved in the political process accountable for the messages they send to the electorate."
All campaign committees would be required to register with the New York State Board of Elections and file associated financial disclosure reports.