Opinion: ‘Even’ out our elections to increase voter turnout

To increase voter turnout, New York City should hold its local elections on the same years as state and federal elections.

An arrow directs voters where to vote during early voting at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 2020.

An arrow directs voters where to vote during early voting at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 2020. ev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

For over 125 years, New York City residents have elected their representatives for city offices in odd-numbered years, while they vote for all other elected offices during even-numbered years. We do not need to concern ourselves with the political motivations of the late 1800s that created this system, but we should concern ourselves with how it affects our current political climate.

The numbers are clear that elections for federal and state offices – known as on-cycle elections – attract more voters than elections for local offices that take place in odd-numbered years or off-cycle. Consolidating municipal elections with presidential or gubernatorial elections will increase voter turnout, giving more New Yorkers a say over who governs them at the local level. 

In 2021, a year when New Yorkers were electing a new mayor, comptroller, four new borough presidents and nearly an entirely new class of City Council members, voter turnout was a paltry 23%. In fact, voter participation in citywide elections has decreased in every local election since 2001.

In the last four years alone, voters have had a presidential election in 2020, races for city offices in 2021, a gubernatorial election in 2022 and City Council elections due to redistricting in 2023, plus various special elections. It's no wonder voters are fatigued.

It doesn’t have to be this way, but we need Albany to act. The state Legislature must pass an amendment to the state constitution to begin the process of moving New York City elections to even-numbered years.

This will increase voter turnout. After lawmakers in Baltimore, Austin and El Paso made the common-sense decision to hold all elections in even-numbered years, turnout rates instantly increased by as much as 460%. Los Angeles held its first local election in an even-numbered year in 2022 and saw turnout nearly double.

Consolidating municipal elections with gubernatorial or presidential elections would also lead to a more diverse electorate. If New York moved its mayoral election from odd-numbered years to even-numbered years, turnout gains would be highest for communities of color and younger voters. Analysis shows that assembly districts in New York City with large minority populations saw the largest turnout increases in even-numbered years compared to odd-numbered years. 

Moving all elections to even-numbered years would also save money. There would be less money spent to open early voting and day-of polling sites and to pay poll workers, and there would be less money spent on pre-election voter outreach, such as printing and distributing voter guides and running ads to remind voters where and when to vote. 

Voter turnout in local New York City elections is historically low. Holding them the same year voters are going to the polls to elect their representatives at the federal and state level would bring more people to the polls, save money and lead to an electorate that is more reflective of the diversity of our city. The more people who vote, the more likely that our elected officials will be representative of the communities they are elected to serve.

City Council Member Sandra Ung is a New York City Council member representing Council District 20 in Queens, which includes Flushing, Murray Hill, Mitchell-Linden, Queensboro Hill and Fresh Meadows. Betsy Gotbaum is the executive director of Citizens Union and a former New York City public advocate.

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