There were nine days of early voting, a get-out-the-vote strategy by the city Board of Elections and dual gubernatorial contests on the ballot, but turnout in New York’s recent primary was still disappointingly low.
For election experts, the lackluster participation came as no surprise, with over 12% of total registered Democrats and Republicans in New York City casting a ballot, according to city voting data. The numbers fared slightly above past primaries, though nowhere near turnout in 2018.
Now, as the BOE prepares for a rare August primary – a result of a poorly executed redistricting process that split the gubernatorial contest from state Senate and congressional races – election experts predict turnout to be even lousier, leaving the outcome of local contests in the hands of just a fraction of New York City residents.
For BOE officials who administer elections and good government groups who promote participation, increasing voter turnout in the country’s most populous city has become a bewildering and perennial puzzle.
“There just isn’t one easy answer on how to raise turnout, unfortunately,” said Ben Weinberg, director of public policy of Citizens Union, a good government group. “Some of the reasons for low voter turnout run really deep.”
This election cycle, indifference, confusion and a belief in their vote didn’t matter kept voters away from the ballot box, according to interviews of New York City residents.
In an email to Gothamist, Vincent Ignizio, the BOE’s deputy executive director, said the agency will proceed with placing legal ads in newspapers and launching a print and social media campaign in all languages. Additionally, the BOE is relying on elected officials, candidates, campaigns and public interest groups to help get the word out. The BOE did not say if any of these strategies veered from standard protocol. Their efforts are routinely complemented by the city Campaign Finance Board, which publishes a voter guide for each election.
For Queens Councilmember Sandra Ung — chair of the Council’s governmental operations committee — the agency could easily improve upon drawing voters to the polls in August and beyond by enlisting help to get the vote out from community groups in areas where turnout is lowest.
“People do trust their local community groups, right? And moreover, from my point of view, local community groups do speak the language of that community,” Ung said. “So I think it’s important for BOE to work with the community groups to get the message out there about voting.”
Sarah Steiner, an election attorney who has closely followed turnout in prior elections, doesn’t place the onus of lack of participation on the city BOE, but said the rollout of early voting could be better handled.
“I think that there have been so many elections lately — the special elections, each one of them has 10 days of early voting,” Steiner said. “I think voters don’t understand what’s going on and there hasn’t been a consistent message to explain it to them or get them used to the idea that they can vote.”