June 22 is a big day for New York City: In primary elections for the largest government turnover in a decade, roughly two-thirds of the City Council is up for grabs, along with the comptroller, four borough presidents, district attorneys, and, of course, the next mayor.
But if this year is anything like previous years, few New Yorkers will show up and vote. As data makes clear, the New Yawk brand of loud and opinionated hasn’t quite translated to high voter turnout. In fact, New York consistently ranks among states with the worst turnout rates in the country. Combined with debates over its new ranked-choice voting system — which may turn off some voters even more — this year could see the low turnout trend continue, meaning the next mayor and other elected positions could be selected by just a sliver of the city’s population.
City Hall and local organizations are combining efforts to educate, engage, and, hopefully, persuade New Yorkers to vote in greater numbers this year. In April, the mayor’s office announced a $15 million voter outreach initiative under DemocracyNYC, the city’s civic engagement arm, to encourage New Yorkers to head to the polls. A portion of that has gone to educating constituents, including launching an interactive app, available in 16 languages, that helps voters practice ranked-choice voting on pretend ballots to decide designations like “favorite NYC landmark” and view how votes are tallied.
“The reality is a lot of New Yorkers just have so much else on their minds that they haven’t really focused on [ranked-choice voting] and the fact that this important election is coming up,” said Laura Wood, New York City’s Chief Democracy Officer. “Our mission is to make sure … New Yorkers have that information going into the June primary.”
New York City’s Poor Voter Turnout
In 2016, there were 4.9 million registered voters in New York City. In the following year’s general election, Mayor Bill de Blasio clinched his second term with just 726,361 votes. That means only 14 percent of people who could vote, voted for de Blasio (it’s maybe part of why he’s so unpopular despite having been made mayor twice).
Last year, with a highly consequential presidential election at stake, the city saw a slight bump in voter turnout compared to 2016. According to a voter analysis report by the Campaign Finance Board, nearly 62 percent of city voters turned out in November with the biggest overall increase among younger voters ages 18 to 29.
But voting tends to nose-dive after national elections and that could happen in the upcoming primaries. There’s no single reason behind New York’s underwhelming turnout numbers, but one that everyone seems to agree on is the state’s outdated voting laws which, intentionally or not, affect voting accessibility. And the harder it is for people to vote, the less likely they will.
“Up until a couple of years ago, it was kind of hard to vote,” said Jan Combopiano, senior policy director at the Brooklyn Voters Alliance, an independent organization that works on voting access. New York did not allow early voting until recently (it was passed into law in 2019) and technically still doesn’t allow no-excuse absentee ballots (which have been temporarily allowed during the pandemic). Rigid rules around designated poll sites and online voter registration are other issues that Combopiano says can make voters less likely to participate. “We’ve never had a municipal election under these circumstances before where we did have early voting, where we did have easier access to an absentee ballot,” she said. “So we’re hoping to see a change in this election.”
Omar Suárez, director of partnerships and outreach for NYCVotes, says it’s all about messaging. “We don’t give local government the same sense of urgency that we do when it comes to national politics,” said Suárez, noting drop-off levels after presidential elections. “Something that is a constant focus of ours is, how can we retain those voters?”
As the Campaign Finance Board’s voter outreach initiative, NYCVotes is allocating $2 million to its get-out-the-vote efforts this year which includes town halls and voter training sessions. Additionally, a board spokesperson confirmed a portion of the $15 million from the mayor’s office will go towards amplifying NYCVotes’s ads and translating educational materials, but did not specify how much.
New York’s New System: Ranked-Choice Voting
With New York in pandemic recovery and with so many important city-level jobs on the line, this year’s local elections are a huge deal. The city’s primaries, in particular, are considered to hold more weight than the general elections given that 3,376,341 of active voters are registered Democrats (by contrast, just 501,848 are registered Republicans).
But this year’s outreach campaigns have another challenge: educating New Yorkers about the new ranked-choice voting system, which was voted into law through a 2019 ballot referendum. Using this new system, voters can rank up to five candidates in a number of races, including for mayor, comptroller, borough presidents, city council, and public advocate. If no candidate achieves a majority of votes, the candidate with the lowest tally is eliminated. But those votes won’t go to waste; instead, in the next round of counting, citizens whose number one choice has been eliminated will have their votes counted towards their second-ranked candidate. The cycle continues until a clear majority winner is determined.
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Ranked-choice voting was used for the first time in New York City in February, during a special election to fill seats for City Council Districts 24 and 31, the latter formerly occupied by Queens Borough President Donovan Richards (he is seeking reelection against four other Democratic candidates in June). To educate constituents on ranked-choice voting, his office created a Civic Engagement Committee made up of members from community organizations, civic associations, and individual volunteers.
The committee, one of the lead partners with DemocracyNYC, is now using lessons from their previous ranked-choice outreach efforts ahead of June, focusing on in-person campaigns to push voter turnout in neighborhoods like Flushing, Jackson Heights, Jamaica, and Far Rockaway.
“We know it’s important that we have communities of color, other marginalized communities, who oftentimes are not coming out to vote at the rate we’d like to see,” said Franck D. Joseph III, Richards’s chief of staff who oversees the committee. “We want to make sure we’re going into those communities and actively ensuring that folks understand what ranked-choice voting is, and they know how to fill out their ballot.”
Research shows clear benefits to ranked-choice voting: low-visibility candidates have more chances of staying in the race while voters don’t have their votes wasted. But the new system has faced opposition, with some lawmakers questioning the city’s readiness for it and an impending lawsuit to halt the use of ranked-choice voting altogether.
Anecdotally, some voters have shown disinterest in ranked-choice voting and many still don’t get how ranked-choice voting works. “One of the things we hear is people trying to game the system,” Combopiano shared, citing her organization’s weekly public trainings. “‘Oh, I don’t want this candidate to win. Should I mark them fifth?’ And we’re like — No! If you don’t want them to win, don’t put them on the ballot.”
Despite challenges, a survey from the special elections shows a promising response from voters toward ranked-choice voting. Of 635 surveyed voters who participated in that election, over 95 percent found filling out the ranked-choice voting ballot to be either very or somewhat simple. About 61 percent chose to rank multiple candidates on their ballots with 31 percent ranking up to the maximum five candidates. Joseph III views arguments around ranked-choice voting as a normal response to a new tool. For him, it reflects a lack of understanding about ranked-choice voting more than voter apathy.
“I think once they get past the confusion, it really opens up the scope,” he said, “because we all know there’s no one perfect candidate for any office.” ❖
Note: Early voting runs from June 12 to June 20.