In the Bronx, Voting Is the Exception, Not the Rule

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Voter turnout in New York City elections is abysmal. The predictors of low participation are varied, from high residential mobility to language barriers and lower education levels. Turnout is lowest in the Bronx, where fewer than 20 percent of adult citizens voted in the last mayoral election, in 2009, across almost two thirds of the borough.

That doesn’t mean people aren’t talking about the mayor’s race in the Bronx — at least one guy in it. Over a game of dominos along Willis Avenue in Mott Haven, Anthony Weiner — as much a reality show star as a candidate — stirred up a debate.

“They should just leave him alone. That’s his life,” said Vilma Madera. “Yeah, but public office?” Francisco Schmidt objected. “We’re going to be the butt of every joke in the country!”

Both Madera and Schmidt say they plan to vote. But most people in this Bronx neighborhood do not. In 2009, it was in the bottom tenth for turnout in the city.

Crossing the street nearby, Angel Cordova chalked that up to immigration patterns in the neighborhood.

“Well, it’s just because there’s a lot of people that are scared,” he said. “That they might get deported, for some people.”

Citizens won't get deported, but newer citizens nonetheless are unlikely to vote. Neighborhoods with high numbers of naturalized residents vote at below-average rates in New York City. Language is also a factor, as is education, according to a report last year by the city’s campaign finance board.

Sever Fisca understands the hurdles. He lives in Pelham Bay in the Bronx. He immigrated from Serbia decades ago, but 2012 was the first time he ever voted. It wasn’t fear that stopped him. Voting just wasn’t a priority.

“Because my day was 4 o’clock in the morning to 6 in the afternoon, I got no time to go to the post office," he said.  "At that time, that’s what I knew. Post office, go register at post office.”

Fisca is a cleaner in the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue, and it was through his union that he finally got involved in politics. This campaign season, he’s doing political outreach for SEIU 32BJ, which represents janitors and building security workers.

“We are targeting new voters, and we want people to register to vote,” said Héctor J. Figueroa, the union's president, in a recent interview in his office. “Because of who we are, two out of three of our members were born outside of the U.S. We’re going to pay an inordinate amount of attention to immigrant voters – Latino, Asian and others.”  

About a fifth of 32BJ’s members aren’t eligible to vote, so it’s not just focusing its organizing efforts on citizens.

“We’re telling people, you need to come out whether you can vote or not and build a movement to really get a piece of the fair share. And politics is one way of doing it,” Figueroa said. The idea is that workers ineligible to vote can still convince members of their family or neighbors to turn out. And, the thinking goes, the more people that show up at the union's political election events, the more negotiating power the union will have after November, no matter who the new mayor is.  

So 32BJ is reaching out to all its members. Since early July, the union's been going door-to-door in targeted neighborhoods across the city. In the Bronx, it's focusing on three council districts.

On a recent afternoon, a woman named Elizabeth opens the door in her Bronx high rise and welcomes Monique Spears and Vivienne Olivera at her door when she sees the familiar SEIU purple t-shirts.   

“Are you a registered voter?” Olivera asks. Elizabeth nods, and Olivera continues. “I’d like to give you some information here, of who we’ve endorsed.”

Elizabeth intently leans over the flier with the union’s picks, because she doesn’t know whom to back. 

“I have no idea,” she says. “For me, reading all that, it will give me an idea, who you know. Because we all human, we want better for ourselves. I don’t really follow the political stuff.”

She agrees to try to come to an upcoming organizing day, but demurs to the canvassers' repeated requests to make a weekly contribution to the union’s political fund.

This is one of the few successful stops on this afternoon. At most of the Bronx addresses on the canvassers' lists, there is no union member around to talk to. Many aren’t home, and at other doors, strangers say the union member has moved away. That’s another factor in low voter participation: high rates of residential turnover.  

Back at union headquarters, Edgar Hernandez tells a room full of organizers how he convinced two new citizens who work at his Manhattan building to take the time to register. At first, he says, they were reluctant.

“And I told them, you’re entitled to vote,” he says. “And they liked the idea of being heard, because they’d never been heard before.”

But, he admits, he made the mistake of not collecting their filled-in registration forms. So he’s not still not sure if, in the end, these new citizens will become New York City voters this year.  


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Comments [5]

ZoetMB from NYC

While I think it would have been fairer to have counted the 2008 national elections rather than the 2009 mayoral election where there was no question that Bloomberg was going to win, the fact that only 25% of adults voted in that election is an absolute disgrace.

Some people choose not to vote because they think that all politicians are alike, but if we've learned anything, it's that the lesser of evils does make a difference. We saw that in Nixon vs. Humphrey and Bush vs. Gore.

In "ZoetWorld", no one would be able to complain if they didn't vote. Back in the 1960s, we fought hard for the right of 18 year olds to vote. The reasoning went that If we could be sent to Vietnam to die for our country, we should have the right to choose the people who sent us there. That right was won, but I suspect that the vast majority of 18 to 21 year olds don't bother to use it, since I rarely see any young people when I go to vote. They say they that it's not worth the time to vote, yet many have no problem spending that same time sending trivial Tweets about absolutely nothing.

Aug. 10 2013 11:44 AM

I teach in the Bronx, where I've ironically noticed over the last few years that grand conspiracy theories have become commonplace among young people, especially young men. The Illuminati, they say, are running everything - Obama's in the Illuminati, my class decided, but Bloomberg isn't cool enough for them.

I definitely feel that young people today in my area are more politically inclined than they were ten years ago, when I started here. They know what's going on locally, nationally, and globally. And, you know what? I don't think they're any more likely to become regular voters than the previous generation of residents in their neighborhood.

It seems like a lot of people around here have a magical idea of how political power works. And it might as well be magical, for all that the sources and avenues of power touch their daily lives. Politicians go behind the curtain and talk to the Wizard for awhile, and that's where all the power happens.

So why would you want to bother participating in that?

Aug. 08 2013 11:08 AM
Bob from SI from Staten Island

Also the Board of Elections voter rolls have up to 20% of names that have moved and or died. So you can not have 100% turnout.

Aug. 08 2013 10:35 AM
Melanie from Central Harlem

How can I volunteer to get involved in helping to get voters in my neighborhood registered?

Aug. 08 2013 10:35 AM
Richard Grayson from Brooklyn

I notice that a whopping 81% of the people in the pink section labeled Rockaway Beach on the map voted in 2009. Those of us who've lived there know that is the coolest place in New York City, just over the Cross Bay Bridge. Maybe the hipsters day-tripping there this summer will take away the civic virtues of the area's residents.

Aug. 08 2013 07:46 AM

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