original photo by Eden, Janine and Jim

It’s 2018, and New York Still Doesn’t Care About Your Vote.

Here’s a helpful breakdown of 3 Ballot Questions you probably didn’t even know you were voting on.

Did you know there’s are 3 Ballot Questions you will be voting on during this year’s election, assuming you live in New York City? If you do, congratulations- you’re one of the few. For all the talk about getting citizens out to vote, local governments still do precious little to inform or motivate the general populace about what’s going on. Here is a list of usually reliable online resources that, as of the typing of these words, still don’t even mention our Ballot Questions: Ballotpedia, Vote Smart, My Time to Vote, Vote 411, and Vote Save America. Ballot Ready mentions them by name, but offers zero information about what they are. The only way I (and most of us) even know they exist is thanks to the Voter’s Guide mailed to our homes- but even if you did read their brief explanations, you’d most likely show up at your polling place on November 6th somewhat ignorant and confused.

It’s not really your fault; New York governments give ballot initiatives about as much priority as fixing the MTA. For starters, the mechanism in New York State to get a ballot question out there is archaic and insane. There’s no way for the public to generate one, as there are in states like California and Massachusetts. For a proposal to make it onto a ballot in New York State, someone from our State Legislature must propose an amendment. It must then pass votes from both the State Senate and the House… and then get referred to the next legislative session, which means we have to wait for an election cycle to pass so that we can elect a whole new crop of politicians. Once we do, the proposed amendment has to pass both the Senate and House again. If it fails to pass any one of these four consecutive sessions, the amendment dies.

If it somehow manages the Olympic feat of passing four consecutive votes, however, the proposal may be placed on the ballot, where we all finally get to vote on it- assuming we even know enough about it to avoid frantically googling the issues on our phones while standing in the voting booth. Last year we had a once-in-twenty-years chance to fix our outdated constitution, but most people went to the booth either poorly informed, or completely ignorant of this incredibly important question.

The ballot questions New York City residents will be voting on in 2018, however, don’t even come from this process. They come from the Mayor’s City Charter Revision Commission, which spent the better part of 2018 year trying to figure out what issues were most important in amending the city’s charter. They received lots of input from New Yorkers, and somehow boiled it down to these three topics, which became the ballot questions we’re all voting on. So this is a NYC-only thing, in case you didn’t know- and I sure didn’t until I started doing this research.

Here are the ballot questions explained as clearly as possible. I’ll distinguish between the facts and my opinions, though researching the facts led me to some strong conclusions about how to vote. Who knows, though- they may lead you to the opposite. If you want to read the full text of the proposals, sans commentary, you may do so here.

Question #1: Campaign Finance.

Voting yes would lower the amount of money candidates running for city offices can receive from an individual, while simultaneously raise the amount of money given to candidates who participate in a public funds program. To understand this better, check out this table:

Currently, if you decide to run for Mayor, I can donate $5,100 to your campaign. With the new, proposed law, I can only give you $3500, which forces you to get money from a larger group of people rather than collecting what you need from a wealthier and smaller base. If you choose to participate in the city’s matching funds program, however, I can only give you $2000- but that’s because the city will kick in some money that matches the donation:

As the table illustrates, if you run for Mayor today and you choose to be part of this program, the city will kick in six times the amount of money I donate, up to my first $175 (in other words, even if I give you $5100, the city will only kick in 6 x $175 or $1050 in funds, giving you a total of $6150 generated by my donation.) The new law ups the limit to $250 and the factor to 8. With the new law, I can only give you $2000, but then the city kicks in another $2000 (8 x $250) for a total of $4000. So you get less money per person, but more of that money comes from the public, rather than from special interests with deep pockets.

On top of that, the overall maximum amount of dough the city will spend matching funds per candidate goes up, too:

These funds are typically handed out partially in June of the election year, and then the rest in early August (just as the primaries are heating up.) The new law would let people get the money earlier: some in February, then April, then June, then August, assuming you qualified (you have to prove a need for the funds then.)

Last but definitely not least, this law wouldn’t kick in until the 2021 Primary election, and even then it would be optional- you could choose to go with this new structure, or not. Then, in 2022, it would apply to everyone running.

The Bottom Line: There’s arguments to both sides, though in general, this law seems to be a positive thing if only because it forces candidates to get more support from more people, rather than catering to less, wealthier people. It’s not a radical “upgrade,” though- while the theory is sound, the reality is, these numbers are so low either way, it’s hard to see this law radically changing local politics- but it does spread the voting power among the people more evenly- that’s the point of Democracy. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ landmark victory over incumbent Joe Crowley, for example, proves that you don’t have to abide by the common wisdom of catering to an elite rich few to finance a campaign- she got her money from lots of average people in the form of lots of little contributions. Someone running for Mayor could do the same, and benefit from this new law- so it does encourage the Democratic process, and that’s a good thing.

There are some pro and con arguments found here, but the “con” arguments are pretty poorly reasoned and unconvincing. Since most people are only going to donate a few bucks, this law would allow an average citizen with no political connection to compete with richer candidates by having the city kick in eight times the amount they raised (it’s pretty safe to assume most of us aren’t donating more than $250 to a local race.) that’s a 33% increase over the current law- not bad.

What’s especially enraging is that New Yorkers are being asked to vote on this minor, city-specific thing, while a gigantic, similar issue exists in our State elections. Called the LLC Loophole, it allows candidates like Governor Andrew Cuomo to raise gigantic sums of money from corporations that are supposedly limited to a maximum $5,000 donation. How? Because in 1996, a bunch of corrupt legislators changed the law to let LLC’s donate up to $150,000 to candidates. So the real estate industry, for example, can simply create as many LLC’s as they want (all of which remain anonymously owned, by the way) allowing them to funnel as much money as desired into Cuomo’s campaign. Cuomo has hypocritically spoken about closing this loophole while he simultaneously used it to raise more money than the next 10 candidates combined.

If you’re wondering why we’re twiddling our thumbs with Ballot Question #1 this year while this LLC Loophole remains alive and well, let me refer you back to my explanation of how our archaic State Constitution works (or doesn’t work.)

I’m voting Yes on Question #1- it’s a small step forward, but still a step.

Question #2: Civic Engagement Commission.

Voting yes on this would create a new “Civic Engagement Commission” made up of 15 members that would be charged to:

  • Implement a city-wide participatory budgeting program by 2020 (more on that in a minute.)
  • Partner with and support local community-based organizations and civic leaders in their “civic engagement” efforts.
  • Develop a plan to “consider the language access needs of limited English proficient New Yorkers” with new services.
  • Establish a plan for providing language interpreters at poll sites starting in 2020.
  • It would also “Partner with New York City agencies to increase awareness of and access to City services.”

The Mayor would appoint 8 of these members, including the Chair, while the City Council Speaker gets to pick 2 people, and each Borough President chooses 1. Everyone has 4-year term limits, except for the Chair, who serves “at the pleasure of the Mayor.”

Finally, there’s this: “The Mayor would be authorized to transfer to the Commission, by executive order, any directly related powers and duties currently being performed by the Mayor’s Office or any department whose head is appointed by the Mayor. Heads of Mayoral agencies would be required to cooperate with and offer assistance to the Commission in carrying out its functions.” In other words, the Mayor is completely in charge of this Commission.

The Bottom Line: Participatory Budgeting is a great idea that exists right now in districts across the city. We, as New York City residents, receive a million bucks each year that we get to distribute among proposals that we originate and vote for- a fairly recent addition, and it’s been a huge success within districts. This would take that idea city-wide, which is a great thing.

Unfortunately, this plan gives waaaay too much power to the Mayor. The idea that s/he gets to pick 8/15 members, including the Chair, who gets to remain chair for as long as the Mayor wants is insane- unless you’re the Mayor, of course. The language is also way too vague about what this Commission can do, and it allows the Mayor to force the Commission to carry out any tasks the Mayor wants them to carry out, regardless of what that task is. They have no say in the matter! Nothing is defined, no limits are set; the Commission can easily become the Mayor’s hatchet man, carrying out his or her plans, but in the guise of it being “from the people” and not from the Mayor, when in actuality, the Mayor is calling all the shots.

If you read the arguments pro and con, you can see that the “pros” are correct in spirit- we do need something like this- but they’re not reading the fine print. The “cons” point out the obvious flaws (at least, the ones not written by Republicans who just hate the idea of spending tax dollars to help the public.) We absolutely do need to bring in participatory budgeting to the next level, but if it’s not coming from the people, then it’s not really participatory budgeting- it’s just the Mayor’s agenda carried out with a mask on. The overall language makes it easy for our Mayor to funnel public resources into his/her pet projects without any opposition, carried about by people s/he hand picked.

I’m voting No on Question #2, as much as I wish I could vote Yes.

Update: Having had this article make the rounds for a few days, I received an eloquent response from the Co-Executive Director of the Participatory Budgeting Project, who gave me the first (and only) compelling explanation for voting yes on this question. To his view, the potential pros outweigh the potential cons. The dangers of Mayoral abuse are not as large as they might seem, mostly because this all-volunteer Commission won’t really have that much power. The real work will be done by the staff of a new Office of Civic Engagement, which I haven’t linked to because I can not actually find any official website that announces its existence (let alone explains what it is.) If you’re asking yourself how you’re supposed to make an informed decision on a political question of which there is, literally, zero information available to the public… well, yes- that’s a question we’d all like answered.

On the “Pro” side, he argues that the Participatory Budgeting program has the potential to accomplish great things, but only if it is given city-wide power and support (right now, it’s optional and only at the district level.) There’s no guarantee of how much funding it would receive, but one estimate lands us somewhere between $60 — $200 million, which is money that you and I would get to decide how best to spend. There’s no real information on what the parameters and limitations are, so it’s hard to know what that money could be used for, exactly- but in theory anyway, if someone proposed a plan that uses $200 million to somehow combat the rampant greed from developers that has lead to our housing crisis, we would be able to vote that program into law.

This issue remains frustrating to us as voters because there are so many unanswered questions about how NYC’s government functions, that neither you nor I can really make an objectively informed decision at the voting booth. The best I can say is that voting yes will offer both potential good and potential bad, and so your vote probably depends most on how much you love / hate / trust / mistrust the Mayor, balanced with how well as how much you value the idea of letting the public decide how to spend they city’s money. Good luck with that one.

Question #3: Community Boards.

Voting yes on this would create term limits for Community Board members. There are 59 Community Districts in NYC, each with 50 volunteer members (for a total of 2,950 people.) Each Borough President appoints people to Community Boards, half of them from nominations by City Council members. Currently, there are no term limits, though members have to reapply every two years (there’s no election process here- the Borough President just renews your membership if they think you’re doing a good job.)

The proposal sets a limit of 8 years (that’s four of these 2-term cycles) before you have to step down and let someone else have a turn. You can, however, re-apply after a 2-year absence. It also requires the Borough President to appoint people from diverse backgrounds that represent the diversity found in that district (currently, there is no such provision.) Finally, it requires the Civic Engagement Commission to provide resources and training to members on topics such as land use so that they can be better informed when making decisions.

The Bottom Line: this is the most controversial of the three questions, though the more I studied it, the more I became convinced there’s only one clear choice. Curbed provides the best single-article I could find detailing both side of the issue, which is basically this: The Pro Side points out that currently, most board members are old, white, and male, and there’s no mechanism for changing that dynamic, since they can remain on the board for life. We need new blood that better represents today’s population (and not the population of 50 years ago,) and this law provides that. The Con Side argues that the law would destroy much-needed institutional knowledge found in longtime members, which we need to fight greedy developers and the like. Some also argue that there is plenty of turnover as it is, so term limits aren’t really needed.

To make an intelligent decision, we need some facts, and it took me a while to find some, but they are:

First, contrary to the Con arguments I read, there is not a lot of turnover. In any given board, only 25 seats are up for grabs in a year, and of those, most just revert back to the same person as before, so actual vacancies are rare. Interest in Community Boards has been growing; last year, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer received 1000 applications for just 300 available county seats, which was higher than years prior. As our country gets more politicized, folks want to get more involved in local government, and right now, most of them can’t. If there are counties out there where it’s hard to fill seats, this is a marketing / outreach problem, not a “the people don’t exist” problem. The solution to low civic involvement isn’t to lazily throw your hands up in the air and keep appointing the same old people in power, it’s to hire a marketing consultant who knows how to reach the populace with intelligent advertising about these open positions. The belief that you can’t find 50 motivated people who care about their community in any one of the 59 districts is pure elitism; it assumes that “the people” are lazy and apathetic, and ignores the fact that we have a political machine that simply doesn’t want people to become politically active citizens.

Second, if you have ever attended a community board meeting, it’s true: most of the members are, in fact, old, white and male (followed closely by old, white and female.) I live in Queens, the most diverse borough in the entire world, but you wouldn’t know it by our community board- yet they are the gatekeepers for new businesses, local zoning, and liquor licenses. More importantly, they are our first line of defense against contractors looking to develop their luxury apartments and drive real estate prices up- I’d rather see the people most affected by gentrification be on those boards rather than people who bought their properties decades ago and want to see that land value rise. Flushing is an extremely diverse area, with almost 40% of its population being Asian- yet 100% of its board members are white, skewing older. A few years ago, they voted against building a health clinic that would have served 40,000 low-income immigrants because they were worried about parking, as if most of the people using this clinic can even afford a car. It’s that kind of out-of-touchness that the proposed law hopes to amend.

Tellingly, all of the impassioned arguments I have read against this measure come from people who benefit directly from maintaining the status quo: current community board members or Borough Presidents. That’s a huge red flag right there. And their argument, that a constant turnover would erode the institutional knowledge most people lack, is bogus- not only do members still get eight years to become experts on how the city runs, but they can actually come back for another eight after a two-year break if they’re the best candidate around. In the meantime, the staggered turnover cycle means they can educate younger board members on what they have learned, the way a Democracy is supposed to work: by passing the baton on. The elitist implication here is that the only people qualified to serve on these boards are people who have already been there a long time, and no one else. Or, as one reader put it:

This is absurd, have folks ever been to a community board meeting? The majority of people on them have no idea about the laws, regulations, or all the other things they think the newcomers would be “stumped on.” They’re essentially calling the public stupid.

The fact is, the Community Board is very much a who-you-know game. You can’t run for it, and you pretty much need to know people already on the board in order to even get considered. Intentional or not, the board becomes a circular, insular beast that only serves to protect its own interests, and not those of the general population. The new law doesn’t even really destroy that insular game- it merely puts a two-year hurdle on the matter. It also requires Presidents to put applications right on their websites so that anyone can apply, something you wouldn’t think required a law in 2018, but that’s how archaic our current system is. It’s true that being on the board requires a lot of volunteer hours per year, and that precludes a chunk of us who can’t make that kind of commitment. But there are plenty who can, and would if they were even aware of these opportunities. Like the County Committee, Community Boards are currently the domain of older, retired people with lots of time on their hands, while an entire generation of disenfranchised immigrants and disillusioned millennials wait in the wings. It’s time to change that dynamic.

As if you can’t guess, I’m voting Yes on Question #3- the potential pitfalls are way overblown, and the potential benefits of opening this process up to the general populace is exactly the kind of thing New York City needs to foster an educated citizenry that is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people (as Thomas Jefferson famously said many years ago.)

Don’t forget to vote on November 6th!

A filmmaker, writer & artist who has directed Public Enemy music videos, coauthored a TED Talk with Brian Greene, and edited Sesame Street, among other things.