Why Don't New Yorkers Vote?

Thursday, April 18, 2013

In 1953, 93 percent of voters in New York City cast ballots. In the last mayoral election, 28 percent of voters did. But before you start wringing your hands, consider these reasons why.

In 2009, barely more than a quarter of voters selected the Mayor for the next four years. But that that seemed almost a foregone conclusion.

New Yorkers were turned off by Michael Bloomberg’s grab at a third term, the thinking went, or just felt like his reelection was inevitable. But that last election was also the low point in a decades-long turnout slide, in New York, and in cities nationally.

In 1953, when New York voters elected Mayor Robert Wagner, the city was completely different.

We’re talking about an older white working class, blue collar population in the city that had been engaged for many decades in city politics,” said John Mollenkopf, the director of the Center for Urban Research at the Graduate Center, CUNY. The neighborhoods were stable and the politics were organized. “The old image of the precinct captain who knew everybody on the block and went around to each door at election time to make sure that everybody voted.”

The economic and social turmoil in the 1970s brought an abrupt drop-off in city turnout. It also transformed the resident population of New York, which Mollenkopf sees as the real factor in the low turnout since.

Immigrants and minority voters now make up a majority of the electorate. African American voters are more likely to vote than whites when you control for socioeconomic status, but Mollenkopf said immigrant voters often live among neighbors who are not citizens. “And so they’re not often targeted for turnout. There’s less of a tradition of turning out,” he said.  

Racial divisions in the city drove voters to the polls in 1989. Sixty percent of New Yorkers cast ballots to elect David Dinkins, the first black mayor, over Rudy Giuliani.

When Giuliani challenged Dinkins again, racialized discontent was stirring.

“People will realize how many votes there are out here and maybe they’ll start catering to the police instead of the perpetrators of the community,” a protester told a WNYC reporter at a 1992 police rally at City Hall.

Giuliani won the 1993 rematch. It was the last time more than 50 percent of New York voters went to the polls to elect a mayor.

In the mayoral elections since, general election turnout has hung around 40 to 30 percent. And the downward tilt is a little counterintuitive during the Obama era, with all the talk of an expanded electorate.

That didn’t trickle down to New York City elections. Part of that is because we’ve had an incumbent in office, which generally lowers turnout, and part of that is built into the system, with roots that go back to the nineteenth century. The calendar for municipal elections in New York was moved several times in the 1800s, depending on who was in charge.

“It was changed precisely because the political parties competing for control of the city knew that changing the timing of the elections would change not only how many people voted but who voted,” said Sarah Anzia, a UC Berkeley political scientist who has documented the phenomenon.

Populist parties wanted the elections at the same time as presidential elections. Parties that ran more on patronage wanted a separate, off-cycle election.

New York City elections have been off-cycle since the 1890s, when Progressive Era activists argued that having local elections at the same time as presidential elections gave national party leaders too much control over local issues. But it came with the tradeoff of lower participation, with political consequences.

“When turnout is low, in these off-cycle elections, as it almost always is, then organized interest groups have greater influence,” Anzia said.

In her forthcoming book Timing and Turnout: How Off-Cycle Elections Favor Organized Groups, Anzia shows that this election calendar has real policy impacts. Off-cycle municipal elections correspond to higher salary and benefit packages for city workers, who happen to be more potent political players when fewer people vote.

So you get the particular brand of New York City campaigning, where candidates have to stitch together diverse, but reliable voting blocs. And elected officials have little incentive to mess with the formula – it’s what got them elected, after all.

And this year, there’s one more factor. Most of the candidates are planning to take public matching funds, which comes with a spending cap. So there’s even less incentive to spend scarce resources to get new voters to the polls. It makes a lot more sense to target campaign dollars on the smaller share of voters who always show up. 


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Comments [10]

John from NYC

Why vote when there is only a single party that wins all elections? The real answer is to get behind a third party whose mission is to create a fair playing field for everyone.

May. 27 2013 06:12 PM
Mrs. Brin

Its because the election is actually the democratic primary - no need to turn out election day because the fate is already sealed. When NYC stops being a one party town - or when we have primaries where non-party members can choose to cast their primary vote in the Democratic primary - then maybe we will see some real action.

Apr. 18 2013 09:47 PM
System of a Down-Jaded City from NYC

Most people lead very busy lives, some doing 2 jobs to make ends meet. They don't have the time of day to vote, let alone think about elections. Their lives remain unchanged from year to year. Politicians do close to nothing to bring about change in their lives. How many times have campaign promises been broken? How many times have politicians visited certain neighborhoods outside of an election year?

You in the media must cover politics and elections, but you are living in a bubble. "Media people" don't live in the real world of paycheck to paycheck, or roommates and rent, or children and child care, or immigration and English language issues.

On a personal note, it seems to me that primarily middle to upper classes vote in numbers. They are more educated, and have the time to sit down, read the upscale New York Times/Wall Street Journal, listen to WNYC and watch the cable news talking heads.

Not even going to mention the fact that these politicians hold fundraisers and collect handsome donations with heavy obligations behind them.

Jaded politicians, jaded politics, jaded voters a very jaded city that doesn't show up to vote on election day. A whole system is built to disenfranchise some and favor others.
(Report on that why won't you, see who underwrites your shows then...and pitches in to become a matching donor during fund drives. )

Apr. 18 2013 04:25 PM
Ben from New York City

Many excellent points so far. I'd also like to add that I point to a lack of civic education at home and in schools as a big part of our voting crisis. Teachers in social studies classes have very little flexibility to tie local (or national, for that matter) elections into their teaching. We must change the focus of our schooling in this area and engage students as thoughtful, active citizens. This is very doable.

I also believe that the general NYC voting public isn't really sure where to look for basic information about their local elections - which is why I started - to provide a clear, helpful source of information to voters. We will have that info up, but it only really matters if we can reach people with it and get them to pay more attention. As we accomplish both of these things, I believe that more and more good, talented people will go into politics.

Apr. 18 2013 01:00 PM
Max from Northern NJ

Both Jane and Suzinne echo my beliefs, though from different perspectives. I do vote, but hold my nose as I do. Why? There are no candidates who reflect my values, who share my vision of what Government should or could be.

Face it. Politics does not attract the best and the brightest. The system is corrupt (though unlike the corruption in developing countries, which is on a low level and is born out of need, corruption in America is on the highest levels and is born of greed), so even well-meaning individuals are sullied by the bureaucratic machinations of the system. Though not enough to solve the problem, universal single-term limits would help.


Apr. 18 2013 12:15 PM
Jane from Brooklyn, NY

I think it's a combination of a lot of things. 1st of all, in general, New Yorkers are over scheduled and over worked. I live in Park Slope, and during the last presidential election, I waited in line for about 2 hours to vote. I'm always on deadline, especially during that time of the year, so it was really difficult to make time for it. I'm not alone in this–a lot of people walked away saying they were going to try to come back later.

Locally, I have a lot of friends who are teachers who want nothing more than to live a decent life where they can make a positive impact. These people are people not looking to get rich, but should be compensated as the talented professionals they are. I feel our elected officials ultimately do not value them, or their students.

And then there's whats going on in congress. It feels like no matter who I vote for, legislation for whats right for our country, both nationally and locally, will never pass.

Apr. 18 2013 11:38 AM
suzinne from BRONX

I'll tell yah why I don't vote. Because all these politicians are CORRUPT. I'm supposed to go out of my way to help their careers? Am DISGUSTED with Mayor Bloomberg, Governor Cuomo, Christine Quinn & Co. I'd like to use even stronger language but will refrain to do so in complying with the rules of this forum.

The problem is not the lack of voting. The problem is and has been for quite a few years now, the very low quality of the people who are running for office! Albany is a joke and so is Washington. Yesterday, for these public servants - and that's what they really are - to vote down this gun background check bill only confirms my point. They're not working for the people. They're working for THEMSELVES.

Apr. 18 2013 10:52 AM
Robert from Manhattan

I agree with Rick and David.

Apr. 18 2013 09:09 AM
Rick from NYC

NYC is not what it was in the 50's. NYC is full of vein, shallow, self centered people who came from money. A lot different from their hard working, immigrant parents.

Apr. 18 2013 07:35 AM
David from Fairfield CT

There's no excuse here. It is this degree of plitical apathy by the American people in general that enables wealthy individuals like Bloomberg and groups like the NRA to have a disproportionate control over our lives.

Apr. 18 2013 07:20 AM

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