Though many articles have already been written deriving themes and conclusions from Tuesday’s primary, one thing is abundantly clear: The abysmal voter turnout in New York State constitutes a crisis that must be addressed immediately.
Last week The New York Times reported that turnout in the Moscow mayoral race was “extremely low”—a measly 2.5 million ballots cast out of a population of around 12 million. If only New York City were even remotely as democratically engaged as Vladimir Putin’s Russia! The Big Apple could muster barely 700,000 votes from its 8.3 million inhabitants—a mere 22 percent of registered Democrats and a pathetic 12 percent of registered Republicans.
Around the rest of the state the situation was just as dire. Over the three elections prior to this one, New York already ranked an average of 47th in voter turnout nationwide—50th out of the 50 states in the 2010 midterms. Though it is still too early to determine statewide voter turnout in this week’s primary, based upon the numbers we do know, it is safe to assume that we will have sunk even deeper into the morass.
In Rochester fewer than 15,000 Democrats came out to vote—“the lowest turnout in the city’s history for a contested race,” according to Monroe County Democratic Chairman Joe Morelle. In Buffalo, a city of about 261,000 residents, only about 21,000 people voted in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, “by far the lowest turnout in memory,” as The Buffalo News put it. And in Syracuse a paltry 18 percent of Democrats bothered to show—down from 25 percent in 2009.
These figures are not just academic. They represent a breaking point in our democracy. Gov. Andrew Cuomo must take immediate action by forming a blue-ribbon commission, whose recommendations he will pledge in advance to support, to propose remedies to this profound problem.
Allowing Election Day registration, early voting, drive-through voting, no-fault absentee voting, the preregistration of 16- and 17-year-olds; accelerating the process whereby voters can change parties; moving to open primaries, nonpartisan elections, even Internet voting—there are myriad ways we can address our voter turnout crisis, and yet we are pursuing none of them.
And why? Because of the parties: Democratic and Republican alike. Because every elected official and party boss knows that low turnout historically benefits incumbents and machine candidates. They don’t want more voters to show up; they only want their voters to do so.
Of course, our electeds pay a lot of lip service to being committed to improving turnout, but it’s all for show. Now is the time for the governor, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Co-Leaders Dean Skelos and Jeff Klein to step up and actually do something. If calling a commission is too expensive or too time-consuming—or too whatever other fabricated excuse they fall back on—there is a simple alternative for them to embrace right now. They can all come out and endorse the findings of a study concluded earlier this year by the New York State Bar Association’s Special Committee on Voter Participation, which proposed a host of sensible, easy-to-implement solutions to the turnout emergency. Then Klein, Skelos and Silver can follow through by introducing—and passing—legislation at the start of next session that turns the Bar Association’s recommendations into law.
On Primary Day Gov. Cuomo issued a statement urging New Yorkers to vote. Talk is cheap. If the governor really wants to see democracy in action, that action needs to start with him.
NOTE: This article has been amended to eliminate my earlier call for online voter registration. As Governor Cuomo spokesperson Rich Azzopardi points out, New York already has online registration, which, according to his numbers, over 75,000 New Yorkers used this year, 25,000 of whom were new voters.
Also, this article originally stated that 14,000 Buffalonians voted in Tuesday’s primary. In fact, it was 21,000. 14,000 was the number of votes cast for Mayor Byron Brown.
Tags: 2013 election, Andrew Cuomo, Buffalo, Buffalo News, Dean Skelos, Jeff Klein, joe-morelle, Monroe County, Moscow, New York State Bar Association, New York Times, Primary Day, Rochester, Sheldon Silver, Special Committee on Voter Participation, Syracuse, Vladimir Putin, voter turnout