Campaigns, voters share blame for low turnout in New York City

Voter turnout has been a perpetual challenge in New York City, and Tuesday’s mayoral election was no exception, setting a record low of 24 percent of registered voters submitting a ballot for the general election. Out of the 8 million city residents, 4.6 million of whom are registered to vote, only 1.02 million New Yorkers actually cast a ballot. This follows a growing trend of low voter engagement in New York City.

In the 2009 mayoral general election, fewer than one in five New Yorkers of voting age turned up at the polls. In the 2010 New York state federal midterm election, voter turnout in the city was considerably lower than the rest of the state — 28 percent for the city versus 53 percent for the state, respectively.

Despite de Blasio’s campaign platform addressing pervasive economic inequality, lower-income residents statistically vote less frequently than their higher-income counterparts. 2009 estimates showed that if those in the lowest financial quintile voted at the same rate as the highest, 8.4 million more citizens would have cast ballots in 2008. Another study found only 31 percent of black Americans vote consistently, a troubling finding given that the stop-and-frisk policy debate affects minorities the most.

One factor in particular can help explain the exceedingly low voter turnout of Tuesday’s election. Namely, the election fell on an off-year cycle where there are no major congressional or presidential elections, which can entice voters to visit the polls. But, even scheduling New York’s mayoral election to coincide with a more far-reaching one would not address the more systemic problems.

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This downward voter trend can be attributed to faults on both the campaign and the voter side of the equation. A London School of Economics study of 340 mayoral elections showed that as campaign spending per voter increases, so does the total turnout. Devoting campaign funds to get-out-the-vote initiatives or more widespread circulation of information about the candidates will mobilize voters who would otherwise choose to skip the trip to the ballot box.

A number of simple yet effective measures have been suggested to increase voter turnout, such as reducing the travel time to the voting location by increasing the number of ballot boxes. Another provision would allow eligible voters to register right before voting, which would convenience new city residents.

New Yorkers today are arguably the most apathetic voters in the nation. While efforts have been made to provide for a more streamlined voting process that is more accessible to all New Yorkers, the ultimate responsibility resides with the voter. The largest city in the United States should be represented by more than just an eighth of its citizens.

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