the city politic

Why Low Voter Turnout Isn’t the Problem Everybody Says It Is

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images

New York just set a record for low turnout in a mayoral election with only about 21 percent of active voters casting a ballot in last month’s municipal elections. Predictably, reformers are using the results as an excuse to call for sweeping changes to our voting laws and procedures.

“This may be a good time to take stock and see whether we can improve on our system,” said former deputy mayor Randy Mastro, chairman of the good-government Citizens Union. The organization has long championed a shift to nonpartisan elections, in which candidates run not as Republicans or Democrats but as names on a ballot, leaving it up to voters to figure out (or guess) who stands for what.

I love the work, the leaders, and the goals of election reformers – my wife, Juanita Scarlett, is a board member of Citizens Union – but they are trying to repair something that may not be broken.

Over the last three decades, we’ve added one reform after another. Under the city’s campaign-finance system, candidates can now get an eight-to-one match for local donations, the most generous program in America. Corporate donations are banned, and independent expenditure groups must disclose their activities.

Local candidates are subject to term limits. In 2019, we added early voting; this year saw the first use of ranked-choice voting. And New Yorkers can register to vote online and check their registration status.

All these measures were directly or indirectly supposed to expand voter turnout and, in some cases, may have done so: More than 1 million Democrats cast ballots in this year’s first-ever ranked-choice primary for mayor, a 29 percent increase from the 772,000 who voted in the 2013 primary. But even those numbers were low compared to the universe of more than 5.5 million registered city voters.

Undaunted, reformers have proposed a slew of even more rules changes.  We recently had a statewide ballot proposal that would have allowed New Yorkers to register and vote on the same day (right now, New Yorkers have to register about a month before Election Day). The proposal failed.

Others have called for expanding the use of ranked-choice voting, having the government pay 100 percent of campaign expenses, or making it easier to cast ballots by mail. And the City Council is on the verge of approving a plan to allow noncitizens to participate in local elections, which could extend voting rights another 800,000 New Yorkers.

The perennial urge to tinker with our supposedly broken electoral system reminds me of the tortured friends we all know who endlessly chase fad diets — Atkins, Pritikin, gluten free, Paleo, 4-Hour, Weight Watchers — but never seem to shed a pound. We should all encourage and support these friends … but at some point, it’s worth gently suggesting that they try fresh food, smaller portions, and consistent exercise.

Start with the often-overlooked fact it was written into New York’s Constitution in 1894 — at the behest of reformers — that municipal elections take place in odd-numbered years in the specific hope of preventing the city from dominating the rest of the state in contests for state and federal offices.

This bit of baked-in urban voter suppression works. In 2020, voter turnout was 70 percent thanks to the excitement and importance of the presidential race. The huge falloff a year later was not only predictable but intentional. If New York is hell-bent on increasing turnout, changing city elections to coincide with the presidential cycle would be the most straightforward way to do it.

Other measures, like ending partisan elections, miss the point. Helping like-minded people take action together is the essence of politics, and that is what parties do. The Democratic Party began as a caucus in the First Congress that banded together to pass the Bill of Rights. The Republican Party started as a band of anti-slavery politicians who wanted to halt the expansion of the evil institution on the American frontier.

Centuries later, party labels remain a helpful shorthand for determining where a candidate stands on important issues. You won’t find many New York Democrats who support union-busting or lowering the minimum wage; you also won’t find Republicans who want to hike income taxes or extend voting rights to noncitizens. Party allegiance is a helpful guide for voters who don’t have a lot of time to invest in figuring out where a candidate is coming from.

We need parties that are more open, ethical and active — New York could really benefit from a viable, competitive Republican Party — but that doesn’t mean we should do away with New York’s current system of having each party select its own leaders, who then compete head-to-head in a general election. Reformers like Mastro want to replace that with a kind of free-for-all in which candidates sell themselves individually, untethered to a party’s platform, policies, or principles.

There’s plenty of room for improvement in New York’s election system. Voting by mail should be simple and available on request; jobs at the city and state boards of election should be determined by civil-service tests, not party patronage. Early voting should be expanded to at least two weeks, and Election Day itself should be moved to a weekend.

But none of that is guaranteed to boost turnout, and we should get comfortable with reality that it might not happen. The Pareto Principle — also known as the 80-20 Rule — is a well-known idea in economics and business literature. It’s based on the observation by Vilfredo Pareto, a 19th-century economist, that nearly all the significant work in many organizations is accomplished by 20 percent of the group.

It’s possible that only 20 percent of New York voters are paying attention, educating themselves and taking time to vote on matters of importance. If the majority are too busy, distracted, or apathetic to cast a ballot, so be it. Let’s keep supplying all the information, persuasion, and mobilization we can — but don’t be surprised if our neighbors exercise their right to leave some decisions to the rest of us.

NYC’s Low Voter Turnout Isn’t a Problem That Needs Solving