New York City’s abysmal voter turnout in elections in recent years is generating efforts by lawmakers, political activists and good government groups to find ways to entice voters to come to the polls.
It could be an uphill battle. The numbers aren’t promising.
The percentage of registered voters who showed up at their polling places for the mayoral election in November of 2017 was lower than it was four years earlier, according to the Board of Elections.
In 2017, 23.9 percent, less than a quarter, of the city’s eligible residents voted in the election that saw Democrat Bill de Blasio handily defeat Republican Nicole Malliotakis. In 2013, when de Blasio beat Republican Joe Lhota, it was 26 percent.
Why is there such a low voter turnout in New York City? There are a variety of reasons, political advocates said.
Some blame New York state’s voting system which features closed primaries and requires residents to register to vote long before ballots are cast.
In New York, only Democrats can vote in a Democratic primary and only Republicans are allowed to cast ballots in a GOP primary. Voters who don’t want to join a political party have no say in which candidates can run in the general election in November.
And if residents who are not currently registered to vote want to vote in the congressional primaries set to take place this June, they would have had to register by Oct. 13, 2017, eight months before the primary.
Chris McCreight, president of the Bay Ridge Democrats Club, pointed to another reason for low turnout. “I think voter fatigue is a factor,” he told the Brooklyn Eagle.
McCreight pointed out that between the various primaries and Election Day, there were four voting days in New York City in 2016. There was a presidential primary in April, a congressional primary in June, primaries for city offices in September, and Election Day in November.
“I think all of the primaries should be consolidated so that they take place on the same day,” he said.
Bob Capano, Brooklyn chairman of the Reform Party, charged that the system disenfranchises voters. “People just don’t think their vote makes a difference,” he told the Eagle.
There are several ideas under discussion on how to improve New York’s voter participation rates.
Three City Council members re-introduced measures designed to entice New Yorkers to vote.
Councilmembers Mark Treyger Treyger (D-Coney Island-Gravesend-Bensonhurst), Ben Kallos (D-Upper East Side) and Helen Rosenthal (D-Upper West Side) are pushing legislation to make it easier for New Yorkers to register to vote and to cut the red tape prospective candidates face getting on the ballot.
One bill would seek to strengthen the Young Adult Voter Registration Act, a 2004 law requiring voter registration forms to be sent to graduating high school seniors with their diplomas. The bill would require the forms to be distributed to students in class instead of mailing them with diplomas.
"Ensuring that our schools are connecting students with language-appropriate voter registration materials will help us empower our young adults to stand up, take action for what they believe in, and become part of the social fabric of our city, our state and our country," said Treyger, chairman of the Council’s Committee on Education.
A second bill would require landlords to provide new tenants with voter registration forms with the apartment lease.
The third bill would overhaul the process by which candidates get on the ballot. Under the bill, candidates could qualify to get on the ballot by meeting a minimum threshold to receive public funds through the city’s campaign finance system.
It would do away with the current system which requires candidates to secure a certain number of signatures on nominating petitions from registered voters in their districts.
Kallos charged that the current system has given rise to “ballot bumping,” an effort by well-financed candidates and political clubs to hire lawyers to take opponents to court and knock them off the ballot for minor technical infractions.
McCreight, whose political club has a successful track record of getting Democratic voters to the polls, shared his ideas.
“Campaign finance reform is a big deal,” he said, adding that giving more candidates a chance to run is important. “It increases voter participation if you have many candidates,” he told the Eagle.
McCreight called for an early voting system that would allow voters to cast ballots ahead of time. He also said New York state needs to lighten up on stringent absentee ballot rules. Under the current system, “you can request an absentee ballot, but you have to give a reason,” he said.
Many voters are put-off by the idea of giving the Board of Elections personal information as to why they won’t be able to vote on Election Day, he said.
Capano also had several ideas. He called for nonpartisan elections, which he said would open the door to a wider diversity of candidates. It would also improve the quality of candidates, he said. “Candidates would have to make their case to the voters and not just ask people to vote for them because they are a Democrat or a Republican,” he said.
The city should explore allowing voters to cast ballots the weekend before the election and should explore allowing residents to register to vote online, he said.
Capano said he would also like to see New York allow initiative and referendum, a system in which specific issues are put on the ballot, such as legalizing marijuana or making changes to the tax structure, for voters to vote on. “Voters care about issues. It drives voter interest. It drives voter passion,” he said.
But an important factor that can’t be overlooked is the quality of candidates, according to McCreight. “You have to give people someone to vote for. You have to have a good candidate and that candidate has to have a message that connects with voters,” he said.