Why So Many New Yorkers Didn’t Vote

“They ain’t for the peoples”


Marino, a big man with a bushy beard, was hanging in the vestibule of the bar where he works near the corner of Lawrence and Fulton streets in downtown Brooklyn, smoking a cigarette on his break. It was about 11:30 a.m. on election day, but he doubted he would make it to the polls. “Maybe I will, maybe I won’t,” he said noncommittally, before providing a litany of reasons why he wouldn’t and not one why he might. He doesn’t see the point of voting, now more than ever. “Government is one of the biggest mafias worldwide,” he said between puffs. “Just look at what happened.”

Even for a local election, this year’s was pretty dull. The most high-profile position on the ballot, the mayoralty, was hardly a race at all. There were three ballot measures on fairly arcane issues, the most contentious of which called for a constitutional convention that wouldn’t actually be held for another two years.

Every election, lots of people in New York don’t vote. Last year, 50.4 percent of voting-age New Yorkers — the majority! — didn’t vote. Yesterday’s turnout was a mere 22 percent of registered voters, leaving only about 1 million people to decide the future of a city of more than 8 million.

This election day, I sought out non-voting New Yorkers in the Fulton Mall area of downtown Brooklyn to find out why they weren’t casting ballots. I did not ask for any last names, in an effort to extend the anonymity of the democratic process to non-voters, too. Of the two dozen people I talked to, eight said they were not voting, two said they were (or already had), and the rest declined to be interviewed. Among those who were not voting, the most popular theme was fundamental mistrust in the political system. And it’s hard to blame them, when one does as Marino recommends and looks at what happened.

On the same block on which Marino was taking his break, three young men were unloading a delivery truck. Two of them, Jorge and Daniel, said they weren’t voting. (The third didn’t weigh in.) “I believe the political system in the U.S. is not effective at all,” Jorge neatly summarized. Daniel was less absolutist about it and expressed some interest in voting if he didn’t have to do it during his half-hour lunch break when he also, you know, had to eat. But he also distrusted the political establishment. “It doesn’t matter how you vote,” he shrugged, referencing the outcome of the last election. “It’s not gonna be heard.”

On the nearby corner of Elm Place and Livingston Street, Robert was on a smoke break from his job inside a nearby office building. A no-nonsense guy, when asked if he was planning to vote that day, he simply said, “No, I’m not into politics.” He only votes in presidential elections.

For two of the non-voters I spoke with, the lack of publicity surrounding this year’s election seemed to affect their decision. Shania, who was working a recruiting table for a local college, said she didn’t plan to vote because she didn’t know much of anything about the races. Despite watching the news regularly, she felt she didn’t have enough knowledge to make an informed decision, so she was opting to sit this one out.

Hector, a construction worker sitting on a bench during his break and nursing a bodega coffee, was surprised to learn there was an election. “I didn’t know there was anything to vote for,” he said. He caught up with me a minute later to follow up: “It’s for mayor, right?”

The most eager non-voter I met was Anthony, a middle-aged black man with thick-rimmed glasses, who was sweeping the streets as part of downtown Brooklyn’s beautification crew. He has lived in the borough for all of his 53 years, which means he has resided in many different Brooklyns. He’s lived through the changes, most of them bad but some good. He pointed to the new, gleaming skyscrapers popping up around us with luxury apartments on the top floors and luxury retailers on the bottom, and related the buildings to the candidates who saw these changes through, the candidates on the ballot today. “They ain’t for the peoples,” he said. He wants someone for the “man at the bottom,” not the bottom of the skyscrapers, but the actual bottom. “We need help. Who’s there to back us? Who’s there to help us?”

Anthony hasn’t voted in a mayoral election since David Dinkins was on the ballot, he said, because Dinkins was the last candidate he believed spoke for him. I asked what he thought of Bill de Blasio, and Anthony replied that the incumbent mayor is “a con artist for me. He faked the funk.”

As I walked back to my bike, a young man by the name of Donald approached me in a hushed voice: “Phones? Phones? You trying to get phones?”

No, I told him, but then asked: You voting today?

“Don’t vote,” Donald replied. “I believe in a higher power.” Just when I thought I had nothing else in common with this man, he gave the best answer of the day: “And humans don’t do anything right.”