Additional reporting by Suhail Bhat

First-time candidates got a major boost from New York’s revved up matching-funds program during the 2021 election season, as the city doled out a record $127 million to participants, a large majority of which went to electoral novices, according to an analysis shared with THE CITY.

The 2021 primary election was the biggest in the city’s history in terms of the sheer number of candidates, with a crowded field vying for mayor, as well as hotly contested races for comptroller and four out of five borough presidents. 

Add to that a long list of candidates running for City Council, as term limits and other circumstances left 36 of the body’s 51 seats open. The June Democratic primary for Council District 26 in Queens alone featured 15 candidates, the most of any of the races.

Last year’s local contests also included ranked-choice voting for the first time, allowing voters to cast ballots for more than one candidate.

The New York City Campaign Finance Board, which tracks political spending, took a year-long look at the 2021 cycle and found that participation in its matching-funds program jumped 10% since the last citywide election in 2017, when comparing primary candidates. 

The CFB gave out a total of $126,917,515 in public matching funds in 2021 — compared to just over $17 million in 2017, and $38 million in 2013, the last time there were open races for mayor and other citywide offices. 

Of 436 candidates on the ballot, 389 of them (89%) participated in the matching funds program — which for the first time offered 8-to-1 exchange, instead of just 6-to-1 — according to the CFB. In 2013, 91% of the primary candidates participated in the program.

Under the matching funds program, donations from New York City residents up to $250 for citywide candidates and $175 for council and borough president candidates can be matched with city dollars. A $10 contribution can become as much as $90 to the campaign, according to the CFB.  

More candidates, as well as changes to some campaign finance laws, helped candidates access more money than ever before, according to the CFB.

“The fact that we had this matching funds that allows people to have sufficient money, to get their message out, to really speak to the voters – really couneracts that independent spending,” Amy Loprest, the board’s outgoing executive director, told THE CITY in an interview.

The new campaign finance laws, which were adopted in 2018, reduced contribution limits to candidates, and increased both the matching funds available to candidates and the total amount of matching funds candidates could receive. 

A majority of the money doled out — 66% in the primary and 85.2% in the general election — went to first-time candidates, the CFB’s report, which will be out Wednesday, found.

Queens Councilmember Julie Won, who defeated the aforementioned crowd in District 26, said the matching-funds program made it possible for her to run as a first-time candidate.

“I wouldn’t have run if it weren’t for matching funds,” she told THE CITY. “People were giving me $10, $15 — it was the promise that every $1 would stretch more.” 

Small Donations, Big Pots

Most of the more than $18 million donated by individuals to candidates was made up of donations $250 and under – 84.6% of the total in the primary, and 79% in the general, according to the Campaign Finance Board’s data. 

That’s a significant increase when compared to the 2013 election, the most comparable in recent years, where 65.7% of donations in the primary and 62.5% of donations in the general were under $250, according to the report. In 2017, 76% of primary donations and 68.9% of general election donations were smaller dollar amounts. 

Money from locals was up, too. In 2021, 71.6% of primary and 70.1% of general contributions were from residents of five boroughs, compared to 66.2% of primary and 67.7% of donations in the general election in 2013.

In 2017, 67.6% of donations during the primary election, and 70.5% during the general election came from New York City residents. 

Mayoral candidate Andrew Yang campaigns in Manhattan on the last day before the mayoral primary, June 21, 2021. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“Small-donor public financing provides an alternative to big checks, at a time where our system across the country has really been flooded with wealth,” said Joanna Zdanys, senior counsel for the elections and government program at the Brennan Center for Justice, the nonprofit public policy institute run out of NYU.

She noted the city’s matching-funds program is one way to encourage public engagement, even when voter turnout is still under 30%.

“It strengthens ties between candidates and the constituents that they hope to serve,” she said.

The report also crunched the data on the role of so-called independent expenditures, which is money spent by outside organizations or people to support a campaign or policy without the support of a particular candidate.

During the 2021 election season, $40.7 million was spent by IE groups, more than double the $15.9 million spent in 2013, and far out-stripping the mere $1.5 million spent in 2017. 

Most of that money was spent in the mayor’s race, with each of seven highest fundraising candidates having an independent expenditure group supporting them.

New Start NYC — which supported mayoral Democratic primary candidate Shaun Donovan and was funded primarily by his father, Michael Donovan — raised more than the actual campaign. Still, Donovan ended up near the bottom in the race. 

And in spite of the millions being spent, less than 1% of the independent spending in the mayoral race was on negative advertising, according to the CFB. The largest amount was $153,500 spent by the New York Deserves Better PAC — opposing candidate Andrew Yang.

During the 2017 mayoral campaign, which featured a smaller list of candidates, 93.9% of the independent spending was to trash Mayor Bill de Blasio. 

Small Fixes

In the report, the Campaign Finance Board also suggested improvements to the city’s public-financing methods for future elections.

The first recommendation is to prohibit campaigns from receiving donations in cryptocurrency. It’s a proactive measure on the part of the CFB at a time when Mayor Eric Adams has spoken positively about cryptocurrency, and even converted his first paycheck into the alternative ducats. 

While some national committees currently accept crypto, and even the Federal Election Commission allows Bitcoin donations, the CFB said cryptocurrency’s “erratic valuation” could complicate the matching-funds program.

And the anonymous nature of blockchain funding makes it “nearly impossible” for campaigns to provide proof of who donated it, according to the report. 

The board also recommends the state legislature pass a law that prohibits foreign entities — from individuals to governments to businesses — from donation to campaigns for ballot proposals. 

Ballot proposals change the state’s constitution or city charter on various issues; this year’s ballot includes approvals for the state to borrow $4 billion for environmental projects and policy efforts, create a “statement of values” for the city, and more.

Foreign donations could sway influence on major and permanent changes to the city, the board wrote. 

Ultimately, the Campaign Finance Board’s goal is to ensure any New Yorker has a say in the city’s decisions – and has the opportunity to run for office, they said. 

“We found that there was no clear advantage to being a [matching-funds] program veteran,” Allie Swatek, the board’s director of policy and research, told THE CITY. 

“The program is working exactly as we would like it to.”