Analysis & Comment

Opinion | Better Government in New York Depends on Higher Voter Turnout

Preoccupied by daily concerns like paying astronomical sums of rent and deluged by the occasional barrage of apocalyptic wildfire smoke, the average New Yorker clearly wasn’t closely focused on the local primary elections of 2023.

By 6 p.m. on Election Day, June 27, just 182,277 of roughly 2.8 million eligible voters had cast ballots, according to an unofficial count from the city’s Board of Elections. That’s a citywide turnout of about 6.5 percent.

Turnout in New York elections is almost always depressingly low. Last week, it was abysmal, producing a slate of candidates chosen by just a handful of the millions of people who live in New York City.

In Manhattan, the preliminary results show that just 5,688 Democratic voters cast ballots in a judicial primary for civil court judge, a position with a 10-year term.

In Brooklyn, Councilwoman Jennifer Gutiérrez, a Democrat, appeared to win her primary with 2,971 votes, which were 81 percent of the total ballots cast in that race.

In the Bronx, District Attorney Darcel D. Clark soared to an easy victory in the Democratic primary by winning a little over 20,000 votes in a borough of nearly 1.4 million people.

The dynamic is especially problematic in New York City because Republicans are largely noncompetitive in these kinds of races and so the Democratic primary has essentially replaced the general election. Lackluster primary turnout stymies competition even further, emboldening donors and special interest groups that include political clubs, the real estate industry and NIMBYs.

The low turnout may help explain why the actions of elected officials in the city are sometimes bizarrely out of step with the needs of the majority of the constituents they serve. State lawmakers and Gov. Kathy Hochul failed to produce a single meaningful piece of legislation on housing this year, for example, even though the housing crisis is clearly the most urgent issue facing New York. But will voters show up at the polls and express anger about this inaction? The usual Albany calculus is: Nah.

The limited competition also tends to encourage bad behavior among politicians. That’s probably one reason Mayor Eric Adams felt comfortable publicly berating a distraught constituent in recent days who dared to ask him why he had allowed the city’s Rent Guidelines Board to raise rents in thousands of regulated apartments.

“OK first, if you’re going to ask a question, don’t point at me and don’t be disrespectful to me, I’m the mayor of this city, and treat me with the respect which I deserve to be treated,” Mr. Adams told the woman during a town hall, according to video footage of the event. “Don’t stand in front like you treating someone that’s on the plantation that you own. Give me the respect I deserve,” he said. Mr. Adams, who is not the first New York politician to lose it with a voter, is up for re-election in 2025.

In Albany, incumbency is so entrenched that legislators have long ago grown confident negotiating policy through the state budget behind closed doors, while the public generally has the ability to testify on legislation by invitation only. “You have a government that is walled off from the concerns of the people,” Susan Lerner, the executive director of the good government group Common Cause New York, told me.

Increasing turnout in primaries may be one of the best ways to get better, more responsive government. Achieving this will mean pushing for significant changes in the state’s election system. One promising bill passed by both legislative chambers in June would shift many local elections to even-numbered years. That would align them with federal races for president and Congress, in which turnout is higher, increasing the chances that more people would participate in local democracy. Some incumbents in New York, unsurprisingly, seem to enjoy things just as they are, and have opposed the shift to even years.

Ms. Hochul should ignore the opposition, much of which is coming from suburban voices, and sign the bill into law. Shifting state and local elections could help limit election fatigue in New York City, where many have been eligible to vote in at least one election every year for four years: a presidential election in 2020; a mayoral in 2021; the congressional midterms in 2022; and City Council, district attorneys and judicial races in 2023. Public awareness of local elections is notoriously low, and isn’t helped by a perennially dysfunctional city Board of Elections that sends voters byzantine informational packets about how and when to vote.

“We also constantly have judicial elections nobody knows anything about,” Ms. Lerner said. “We have miscellaneous party issues on the ballot. When you add in special elections, people are just like, ‘What? Not again!’”

Adopting mail voting would also make participation easier, and would probably increase turnout. A bill passed by the Legislature and awaiting Ms. Hochul’s signature would do exactly this, although voters in New York would still have to request a mail ballot, unlike the process in Washington State and Colorado, where registered voters automatically receive one.

Recruiting more compelling candidates to run for office could also motivate more New Yorkers to participate in local elections. Among the strongest turnouts in the June 27 primary this year was in Harlem, where Yusef Salaam, who was wrongfully convicted of sexual assault as a teenager in the Central Park jogger case, won a crowded Democratic City Council primary, after captivating voters and working the campaign trail hard.

Mostly though, New York is electing local and state candidates who derive their political power from tiny slices of the electorate. It’s a recipe for bad government in one of the most populous, economically important states in the nation.

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Mara Gay is a member of the editorial board. @MaraGay

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