THE CAMPAIGN FINANCE BOARD
AND POLITICAL REFORM
The dynamics that shaped the citywide election of 2001 laid bare a pressing need to reform the so called reformers - the blue ribbon panel making tepid election reforms, but funding in earnest what are tagged, “serious candidates.” The Campaign Finance Board, terrified at the prospect of rule by the rich (as opposed to rule by party bosses) labored in vain to prevent their worst fear from becoming reality. Because all their eggs were in one basket, the stumble and fall left little of value behind. Promised reforms for greater political diversity and balance, again became complete polarization, a Republican mayor adrift on an ocean of Democrats; the identical posture of the last eight years. A very disappointing result for the millions spent on political reform.
The use of technology as a political tool played almost no role in the reforms of the Campaign Finance Board. The election process for the City’s future resembles more a contrivance to protect the Democratic Party then a progressive system. Almost all the public money went to elect Democrats, and very little was spent for systemic changes. The city’s political system is still a tangle of bewilderment, just as antiquated as the City’s education system.
Take, for instance, CSMART software developed by the Campaign Finance Board as their official accounting program. This software is so bad that any commercial vender offering the product would instantly go bankrupt. CSMART suffers all the ills and rigidity of a DOS based text program ported to the modern Windows operating system. It is a bug ridden, abstruse, relic, user unfriendly in the extreme - accounting entries are best worked out with pencil and paper first, and then entered into the computer. Anyone prone to conspiracy theories might say, this ridiculous program was intended not as a campaign aid, but as a deliberate obfuscation and hindrance to keep the average citizen out of politics. This, of course, is the complete opposite of the Campaign Finance Board’s self professed purpose of more openness in government.
The Board’s use of the Internet is another example of a minimalist approach to technology - submissions and communications between candidates and the Board took place by messenger service or through the US mail - with no use of the Internet. The freeform search engine approach to data referencing now standard for Internet research, was absent from the City’s campaign finance web site. A user could not enter a name and receive a list of all relevant files associated with the name. Instead, the user had to first identify a specific campaign, and then look for a name within that campaign. If the name was found, a single record showing the transaction was presented for viewing. Users had to search hundreds of categories one at a time to gather the same information typical of a freeform search. Apparently, open government on the Internet is a myth; scraps are tossed to the public, and the meat is safely tucked away.
Rather then bankrolling “serious candidates” fund instead a steady stream of ideas. Finance the conditioning of voters to receive and digest a diversity of opinions. Finance dozens of debates in every corner of the city, and pay all the candidates to debate, and ONLY to debate - let every candidate earn their public support. Pay nonprofit civic groups, always in need of money, to host local debates. Advertise and attract voters to local debates. Take the emphases off private spending, buy television time for the city and allow all the candidates to share, rather then giving millions to private individuals to buy television time for their exclusive use. In short, finance the group rather then the individual, make New York City politics a team sport. Finance city sponsored election-time activities, audience development, and candidate participation. Instead of a three ring circus, which New York elections now are, make them a one ring circus - pay for one and only one spotlight, and let all the candidates do their thing in the public’s critical gaze.
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New York City
December 15, 2001