Democracy Fatigue in New York

by / Oct. 27, 2015 5pm EST

Next week, voters will cast their ballots in a smattering of races across the state. Up for grabs are a hodgepodge of county executive, district attorney, mayoral and municipal legislature posts, as well as a handful of vacant state Senate and Assembly seats in Albany. There are no presidential, congressional or statewide elections, and no New York City contests, aside from a few special elections and a slate of judgeships.

Most of the campaigns are snoozers. Some candidates are running unopposed, others with token opposition. In many districts, winning the September primary was all that mattered. Even in the races garnering more headlines, such as the Nassau County and Staten Island district attorney fights and the Binghamton battle to replace ex-state Sen. Tom Libous, most voters are likely to skip a trip to the polls. Altogether, it’s shaping up to be another lonely day at the ballot box.

But what’s surprising is not the lack of voter engagement—it’s that it doesn’t have to be this way. Turnout in other jurisdictions makes clear just how subpar New York’s showing is, and recent trends offer little hope for improvement. Last year Gov. Andrew Cuomo won a second term with the lowest gubernatorial vote total since Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1930. Only a quarter of New York residents of voting age cast a ballot in the race—higher than Texas but lower than every other state. A similar figure estimating total turnout among eligible voters found New York did slightly better, with a 29 percent turnout, but the state still ranked second to last. In contrast, 58 percent of eligible voters in Maine cast a ballot.

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Americans often assume that their democracy is a model for the world, but a global comparison of voter participation indicates otherwise. In 2012 the United States had a turnout of slightly more than half—53.6 percent—of its voting age population, surpassing only Japan, Chile and Switzerland among countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The 30 other OECD countries outperformed the U.S., including seven with a turnout exceeding 80 percent. It’s only a slight exaggeration to describe New York as the worst of the worst.

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In off-cycle elections like 2015, it gets worse still. Fewer than a quarter of active, registered Democratic voters cast a ballot in the 2013 New York City mayoral primary. When Bill de Blasio advanced as the Democratic nominee, nearly three-quarters of the city’s electorate didn’t vote – neither for him nor for anyone else. In other local races, participation often drops even further. Take the office of Staten Island district attorney, which was recently vacated when Dan Donovan was elected to Congress: The last time it was an open race, in 2003, turnout rose to 20 percent, then dwindled to 12 percent and 11 percent as Donovan easily won re-election. In 2011, a point comparable to 2015 in the four-year election cycle, turnout for some state Supreme Court judgeships in Manhattan, Brooklyn in Queens was around 5 percent.

Another 2011 race, the hard-fought contest between then-Erie County Executive Chris Collins and challenger Mark Poloncarz, did spur relatively high turnout for an off-cycle election, but the candidates collectively mobilized only slightly more than 4 in 10 voters. That was nearly the same level of voter involvement in Erie County as in last year’s gubernatorial contest, which was notable for its lackluster turnout. This year’s county executive contest between Poloncarz, now the incumbent, and Assemblyman Ray Walter is unlikely to increase those figures.

“It seems that in New York and other states, the approach has been to make it as difficult as possible,” said state Sen. Michael Gianaris, who long has been an advocate of getting more people signed up to vote. “Make registration difficult, make voting difficult, and we get what we deserve when you see how few people are turning out to vote.”

On an individual level, some argue, voting doesn’t actually make much sense. The right to vote is a foundation of representative democracy, giving citizens a say in who governs them and the policies put in place. But while anyone voting for a candidate presumably wants that candidate to win, political scientists note that a single voter has virtually no chance of determining the outcome. The reason? Elections are rarely if ever decided by one vote. Whether or not you show up, the outcome is the same. That makes the choice to cast a ballot irrational, according to the so-called “paradox of voting” theory. The costs, such as taking time out the day and travelling to a polling site, are invariably greater than the miniscule chance of actually having an impact.

Some political scientists dispute that theory, citing the social commitments and rewards involved in voting and the sense of civic duty. Others argue that the theory fails when applied collectively, rendering it of little use in the real world: If every voter acted on the conclusion that it is irrational to vote, nobody would participate and the system of democratic governance would fall apart.

Whatever the case, the role of the individual is central to the question of voter turnout, especially in the U.S. Unlike other governments that take a more active role in registering citizens and encouraging voting, the American approach puts the burden on individuals. Fingers are pointed at people who don’t make it to the polls, with surveys highlighting excuses given by respondents: too busy, not interested, forgot to vote, don’t care.

Some even suggest that society would be better off if the federal government didn’t take any steps at all to encourage voting. The conservative columnist George Will, for example, has suggested that the inclusion of “lackadaisical citizens” would diminish “the caliber of the electorate.” Echoing the views of many, Will dismissed worries over low turnout, which he attributed to gerrymandered districts, a lack of competitive elections and general voter satisfaction.

Critics counter that the fundamental problems are with the voting system, not the voters. Holding elections on Tuesdays, an anachronism dating to the mid-19th century, doesn’t make it easy to get to the polls, especially for the working poor. There are sometimes as many as five elections in a single year, making it hard for all but the most dedicated voters to remember when to show up. Off-year elections, especially those with mostly obscure races like this year, further confuse voters. Even more obscure to the general population are the deadlines to switch parties, re-register at a new address or sign up to vote for the first time. Such obstacles loom even larger in a city of immigrants, transplants and the transient. Many potential voters don’t even know where to go to register, and outreach is largely left to a few good-government groups. With limited campaign funds, candidates invest in getting their message through to likely voters, not recruiting new ones. New York hasn’t enacted the kinds of voter identification laws that have sprung up in some Southern states, but it hasn’t followed the lead of states like Oregon in expanding voter access, either.

Some political scientists have documented the impact of nonvoting, and there’s no dispute about who is left out: the young, the poor, and racial and ethnic minorities. The nation’s Hispanic population is steadily growing, but its share of the electorate has been stalled since 2006, exit polls show. These trends bolster arguments that elected officials are more responsive to whiter, older and richer Americans. Scholars note that had the turnout been marginally higher in Florida in the 2000 election, Al Gore would’ve been president, undoubtedly altering national policies and priorities in the following years. Academics have concluded that organized interest groups benefit disproportionately from low turnout, especially in off-cycle elections. Local school board elections, held in the spring in New York, are particularly vulnerable, as large numbers of motivated teachers union members can more easily sway the outcomes of otherwise overlooked contests.

In New York, a combination of gerrymandered districts and lower turnout in the 2014 election helped Republicans retain control of the state Senate. While in power they blocked any number of bills, from the Dream Act to the Child Safe Products Act. (A Senate Republican spokesman said the conference won on “the quality of our candidates and the strength of our message” and had taken “meaningful steps to encourage citizens to participate in elections and in their own state government, and we will continue to do so.”)

Some observers suggest that New York City’s tradition of lackluster turnout may have played into Cuomo’s centrist approach and his focus on economic development projects in upstate New York and the political views of suburban residents. In effect, the less that voters in the five boroughs show up to the polls, the less they’re listened to in Albany.

The governor has publicly supported redistricting reform and public financing of elections, albeit with little success, but he has not made voter registration and turnout a priority. In a radio interview a couple days after his re-election last November, Cuomo downplayed his poor showing. Despite New York underperforming nearly every other state, the governor laid the blame on the nationwide decline in voting and the lack of a strong gubernatorial challenger.

“There was no real state issues or state excitement or state energy,” he said in an interview with “The Capitol Pressroom.” “My race was never close. There were no big issues that were driving a state turnout that would overwhelm the national phenomenon. ‘Well, come out for the state Senate,’ was our best argument. You know what? State Senate? It’s hard to motivate people about a state Senate.”

Other politicians have called for a forceful response to low voter turnout. Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic presidential candidate, issued campaign proposals that would mandate 20 days of early in-person voting and institute automatic registration for every eligible voter. Her top primary rival, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, said during their first debate that “we need to have one of the larger voter turnouts in the world, not one of the lowest.” Rep. Steve Israel of Long Island has introduced legislation to move Election Day from Tuesday to the weekend. Others have called for the congressional and state primaries, which are on different days in New York, to be held at the same time. Another potential change that might be the single biggest boost for local election turnout would be to combine them with state and federal elections in even years.

In New York City, de Blasio has rallied behind Clinton’s national early voting proposal. “But I don’t think New York City or New York state are doing well enough either,” he said on “Face the Nation” this summer. “Our elections are governed by state law. And for a long time, I have believed we need to make a fundamental series of reforms. Let’s face it. Historically, a lot of people in the political class have tried to discourage voter involvement.”

New York City Councilman Ben Kallos has sponsored more than half a dozen bills addressing voter access, including one signed into law by de Blasio that expands the number of city agencies that offer voter registration. Other measures would allow absentee voting at the same time someone registers and institute instant runoff voting. But the most significant reform, Kallos said, would be early voting.

“By moving Election Day from a couple of hours one day a year or a couple times a year to a situation where people can vote whenever they feel like it, by mail or however they wish, or in person, that really changes things,” Kallos said. “It’s changed elections, and instead of trying to do (Get Out the Vote) Weekend and then calling voters on one day over a couple of hours, you’d be able to go literally door by door and bring people out to elections. That is one of the things that is a big change that happens with elections in terms of participation.”

Ultimately, though, it’s the state that decides how and when people vote. In the state Senate, several bills have been introduced that would allow voter registration on Election Day, voting by mail and unifying the congressional and state primaries on a single day. The top priority for Gianaris, the Democratic deputy minority leader of the state Senate, is a universal voter registration bill similar to Clinton’s national plan.

“They wouldn’t have to fill out a form, they wouldn’t have to meet any deadlines, no nothing,” Gianaris said. “When you turn 18, you get a notice at home saying, congratulations, you’re registered to vote. All you’ve got to do is show up on Election Day. That would register over 2 million people in the state who are eligible but unregistered right now. By way of comparison, in last year’s gubernatorial election, a little over three and a half million people voted. So you can imagine what kind of an impact adding over 2 million people to the rolls might have in a situation like that.”

Although expanded voter rolls would likely boost Democratic candidates—and Republicans have blocked such legislation in recent years—Gianaris insisted that his efforts are nonpartisan. The battle lines, he said, are between those in power and those who aren’t. When he was in the majority in the state Assembly, for example, many of his fellow Democrats looked askance at his voting proposals.

But if the elected officials who are in power have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, how will things ever change? Pointing to the widespread dissatisfaction with government and alienation among voters in an era of political gridlock, Gianaris suggested that the situation might get worse before it gets better.

“I think we’re going to reach a crisis point where so few people are voting that the faith in our institutions is going to be diminished,” he said. “We already see that happening. The state Legislature is held in low regard, as is the U.S. Congress, and I think people would be more invested in the outcomes if more people were participating in the process.”

Jon Lentz is senior correspondent for City & State