From schools to parks to public safety and sanitation services, local government plays a big role in our day to day lives. Yet, for every one person who votes in a mayoral election, two vote in the presidential contest. We need to do something bold and transformational to ensure more New Yorkers have a say in who is making decisions that impact New York City’s neighborhoods.
Municipal elections in New York City, which are held in odd-numbered years, have consistently seen lower voter turnout than elections for president or governor, which are held in even-numbered years. Moving our city elections to even-numbered years is the easiest way to increase the number of New Yorkers voting in races for key city offices. It will lead to an electorate that is more reflective of the diversity of the city and reduce the cost of administering elections.
Since 2001, New York City mayoral elections have averaged a turnout of 29.5 percent. In every election since the turn of the century turnout has decreased. The 2021 general election saw an historic low turnout of 23 percent and observers are expecting even lower turnout for this year’s City Council elections. Over the same period, gubernatorial elections have seen an average turnout of 35.6 percent, while presidential elections have an average turnout of 60.8 percent.
Many municipalities around the country have moved their elections from odd to even-numbered years. Phoenix, Austin, El Paso, and Baltimore, shifted their elections to even-numbered years, and turnout rates in these cities have increased by as much as 460 percent. Los Angeles held its first election in an even-numbered year this past November and turnout nearly doubled. San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Boulder have recently approved making the switch to even-numbered year elections.
The data also suggests that if New York moved its mayoral election from odd-numbered to even-numbered years, turnout gains would be highest for communities of color and younger voters. The move would also reduce costs associated with conducting elections and give the City Board of Elections ample time between major elections to prepare, which would ensure a better voting experience for voters.
Opponents of this reform claim that it would be impossible for voters to be adequately informed with so many races on the ballot. Some say that voters are lazy and that they will pay attention only to the top of the ticket.
These arguments fail to respect the intelligence of voters or recognize that we currently vote for many different positions on one ballot. The November 2018 ballot included elections to a dozen offices, where local races for judicial positions were mixed with high-profile contests such as president. Voter guides, endorsement lists, and local media reporting help New Yorkers to make choices about their vote even if they don't know all candidates.
There is also concern that mixing municipal elections, which use Ranked Choice Voting, with elections that don’t have Ranked Choice Voting would be confusing to voters. That scenario already exists. In June 2021, voters in Manhattan voted in municipal primaries using Ranked Choice Voting, and a competitive Democratic primary for District Attorney which didn’t.
Consolidating elections isn’t popular with some campaign consultants, who rely on off-year campaigns to stay afloat. While they have our deepest sympathies, decisions must be made around the needs of voters, not political professionals. A national poll shows that 70 percent of voters favor this reform, across partisan spectrums. Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Austin put this question before the voters and in each city the referendum passed with over 70 percent of the vote.
Odd-year municipal elections are a relic of the 19th century, and do not fit our current need to foster a more inclusive democracy. Moving local elections to even-numbered years would help narrow participation gaps, particularly among voters aged 18 to 29 and in majority-minority districts and would increase turnout in both citywide and local council races. It’s a common-sense reform that will have a transformational impact on our local democracy.
Betsy Gotbaum is the executive director of Citizens Union and a former New York City Public Advocate and Ben Weinberg is the director of public policy for Citizens Union.