Could New York City’s notoriously low voter turnout just be a scheduling snafu?
That’s the argument in a new report from Citizens Union to be released on Friday. The nonpartisan good government group examined how holding local elections in the same year as state or federal races boosted participation rates in other U.S. cities by as much as 460%.
Currently, New York City holds its local elections in odd-numbered years, and state and federal races in even-numbered years.
Paltry turnout is a perennial problem in the five boroughs. But the numbers hit a record low in the 2021 general election when 23% of voters cast a ballot for mayor. By comparison, voter turnout in the city was north of 55% in the 2020 presidential election, and was 38% in last year’s governor’s race.
Advocates from Citizens Union say that current low voter turnout rates concentrate power in the hands of too few constituents, which results in less accountability for local elected officials, and an electorate that looks less like the city itself. In the last mayoral election, voters aged 70-79 made up the largest share of the electorate, with the highest turnout in Manhattan, according to analysis from the New York City Campaign Finance Board.
The release of this report is the first step in what Betsy Gotbaum, Citizens Union executive director, pledged will be a major campaign by the group to convince city voters and lawmakers to take the steps needed to reform the state Constitution, which currently requires that all the 61 cities across the state, including New York City, hold their municipal elections in odd-numbered years.
Still, changing the timing of the city’s local elections is no simple task — and would likely face political headwinds from those who fear partisan fallout from higher voter turnout. Last year, the state Republican and Conservative Party leaders staunchly opposed a bill that would have shifted local elections outside New York City to even-numbered years accusing Democrats of trying to “wipe out” the state’s Republican Party.
That likely opposition is something Gotbaum said she’s gearing up to fight.
“We’re going to spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to convince folks who prefer fewer people to vote that that is anti-democratic and that we really need to let the popular will reign,” said Gotbaum.
Consolidating elections in the city would mean casting a ballot for mayor, comptroller, public advocate, borough president and City Council at the same time as voting for governor or president, when more voters traditionally come out to vote.
“People have got to learn how terribly important local elections are,” said Gotbaum. She stressed the importance of the issue for city residents, since the policies that dictate what’s happening in their streets and schools are a product of who occupies City Hall.
Data from cities that made the switch
In cities across the country, turnout rates were significantly higher when local, state or federal elections were jointly held.
One example is in El Paso, Texas, there was only about 8% voter turnout in their last mayoral election in 2017, according to the report. Voters opted to move their elections to even-numbered years starting in 2020, to coincide with the presidential election. Voter turnout was 45% in that election, a 460% increase compared to the previous off-cycle mayoral election.
Most recently, Los Angeles switched to even-numbered elections for its mayoral election last year. In the city’s last off-cycle election in 2015, the voter turnout there was 24%. After the shift to even-number elections, last November’s election which coincided with the midterms saw 45% voter turnout. The Los Angeles Times reported a record number of votes were cast in that race.
An electorate that better reflects the city’s population
Researchers examining the timing of elections largely agree that shifting local races to match state or federal contests leads to higher turnout. More recently, they also found that changing those dates alters the overall make-up of the voters who turn out to cast a ballot.
“You see actually quite dramatic shifts in the shares of active voters who are younger, large increases in the share of voters who are people of color, and some increase in working-class participation as well,” said Zoltan Hajnal, a professor of political science and co-director of the Yankelovich Center for Social Science Research at the University of California, San Diego, whose research is cited in the report. Hajnal did a major study that found turnout among younger voters nearly doubled in California cities that switched their elections to even-number years.
In New York, younger voters are also more likely to turn out in even-numbered election years. In the 2020 presidential election, voters under age 30 showed the largest increase of voters of any age group with more than 59% of voters age 18-29 turning out to vote. But their participation dropped off dramatically in 2021 with just over 11% turnout, the report notes.
Shifting election dates to even-number years also benefits communities of color, according to the report. Policy analysts at Citizen Union examined turnout in 12 Assembly districts in New York City with different majority racial and ethnic groups. The report found turnout was highest in these districts in even-numbered years, like 2020, a presidential election year, with significant drop-off in 2021, the mayoral election year.
For example, in the three Assembly districts with the largest share of the white population, including District 62 on the South Shore of Staten Island and districts 73 and 76 on the Upper East Side, the report found the average turnout in the 2020 presidential election year was 120% higher than it was in 2021.
Those average increases were even larger in the districts with a majority Asian and Black populations, all outside of Manhattan, which saw higher turnout in 2020 by 172% to 194% as compared to 2021.
The report found the biggest increase in the turnout rates between mayoral and presidential elections were in majority-Latino districts, including District 72 in upper Manhattan, and districts 84 and 86 in the Bronx which collectively saw a 256% increase in turnout in 2020 compared to 2021.
Obstacles and optimism
Shifting election years has come up before. In the latest scuffle in the last legislative session, then-Republican State Party Chair Nick Langworthy argued the switch was about Democrats trying to, “manipulate the system to rig themselves into total and permanent power,” Spectrum News reported at the time.
More recent efforts to change the state Constitution’s provisions related to absentee ballots and same-day voter registration were rejected by voters after a multi-million dollar campaign backed by state Republican and Conservatives, including deep-pocketed donor Ronald Lauder.
Still, proponents point to other election reforms ushered in by the state Legislature in recent years, like early voting, automatic voter registration and even a public campaign finance system.
“These are things that were dreams just a few years ago and we’re now seeing them coming into fruition,” said Ben Weinberg, director of public policy at Citizens Union and one of the report’s authors.
He said this latest proposal would be another boon for local democracy, adding, “It’s a trend that’s growing.”