Why Don't New Yorkers Vote?

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.