As voters, we’ve become a nation of cynics. Fewer than 60 percent of eligible voters turned out in the last presidential election; in New York state it was less than half. We watch with concern as people risk their lives to vote in struggling democracies around the world, yet here at home we shrug our shoulders when passing up this most democratic of opportunities.
To be sure, a number of practical steps are being pursued to make it easier to “get out the vote.” Early voting, same-day registration, and no-excuse absentee ballots are all well-intentioned and increasingly successful attempts to remove obstacles in the path to the voting booth.
But we shouldn’t lose sight of the most important cause of voter apathy in the 21st century: disdain for the institution of politics. Here, of course, a big finger gets pointed at the famous gridlock in Washington, D.C., but we shouldn’t underestimate how our statehouse shenanigans contribute to the enervation of voters. In New York alone, 25 state legislators have left office due to criminal or ethical issues since 1999. Not surprisingly, a 2013 Siena Research Institute poll showed that two-thirds of New York voters believe “state government is becoming more dysfunctional every day” and that 89 percent believe corruption in the state legislature is a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem. The recent demise of the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption can only add to the public’s cynicism. Is it any wonder that voters choose to stay home, convinced that their votes don’t matter, that money drives policy, and that the system is riddled with hidden conflicts?
Campaign finance and political ethics reform are not sexy subjects when it comes to front-page news. But they are necessary steps in any effort to improve perceptions of, and respect for, the political marketplace. To this end, the New York City Bar Association has long championed the public financing of election campaigns on a city, state and federal level. New York City’s system provides public matching funds to participating candidates in exchange for their agreement to limitations, including a ceiling on fundraising. It’s a national model for leveling the playing field, and enables candidates to gain office without assembling huge war chests. Another Siena poll shows that 64 percent of New Yorkers support the creation of such a comprehensive system on the state level. The governor and the state legislature missed a great opportunity to achieve that in the final 2014-2015 state budget, but New Yorkers should continue to demand reform and, ultimately, New York should adopt it.
When it comes to political ethics, a Joint Committee on Public Ethics (JCOPE) was established two years ago, amid great fanfare, to reinvigorate and enforce state ethics laws. Yet a City Bar report by our Government Ethics Committee and Common Cause/New York recently found that JCOPE has fallen short in meeting its mission. JCOPE should live up to its initial promise to change the climate in Albany, using its regulatory power and its bully pulpit to educate the public and call politicians to task.
As long as these types of basic statutory and regulatory reforms are ignored, we shouldn’t be surprised when our friends, relatives and neighbors don’t vote, citing political business as usual.
Carey R. Dunne is a partner at Davis Polk & Wardwell, where he is chair of the white-collar defense and investigations practice.