New York City elections play out in a steady rhythm. State and federal in even years, city in odd years. Now the New York City Campaign Finance Board has an official suggestion: Let’s do it all at once.
The goal would be to increase voter turnout – more New Yorkers vote, generally, in the presidential and gubernatorial years than the city years. But like many of us in this world, political consultants’ lives are tied to the existing calendar. And they mostly don’t like the pitch.
“Keeping council races in the off year gives them the attention they deserve,” said Camille Rivera, partner at New Deal Strategies. Voters want consistency, she said, and “as a consultant, it’s an important business opportunity to service council and city candidates in the off cycle.”
Others think it would be good for business – but bad for democracy. “More campaigns mean less staff to go around, which positions us to provide the support campaigns need,” said Justin Chae, CEO of Meridian Strategies. But voters already get confused with crowded ballots now. Double that up? Chae said the impact would probably be “less care given to anything after the top of the ticket, so more ethnic surname bias, picking whoever is first, and random (ranked-choice voting) picks.”
They’re just two of the half-dozen consultants City & State reached out to for feedback, after the board published its annual voter analysis report Monday. It’s a huge document full of fascinating analysis. (Average age of primary election voters? 57. Highest turnout in the general election? Upper East Side.) But the headline is that the board recommended aligning city elections with presidential elections. That hasn’t been done since 1892, when Grover Cleveland carried New York.
“We’ve always given policy and legislative recommendations,” said Tim Hunter, press secretary at the Campaign Finance Board. “(But) this is the biggest recommendation we’ve made, ever. … We’re literally talking about shifting the entire campaign universe.”
To be sure, consolidation isn’t even close to happening. There have been bills introduced in the state Legislature every session for at least a decade. They get few to no co-sponsors and die in committee. State Republicans are staunchly opposed, thinking it would hurt the party’s chances. Most Democrats are just quiet on it. One of the reasons for that may be that a lot of the consultants, who state legislators have all hired for their expertise at one point or another, don’t like it.
But the idea is gaining some momentum. Good-government group Citizens Union is lobbying for city elections in even-numbered years, and City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams told a Citizens Union breakfast last year she would “definitely” support it. City Council Member Sandra Ung, who oversees the Campaign Finance Board as chair of the Governmental Operations Committee, is also open to it. Her office told Campaign Confidential she thinks “it would be a positive move” that could avoid “election fatigue” and “help drive up turnout.” That said, it’s not a live issue before the council.
Consultants have many concerns. “This would be a good idea if we had the same number of metro reporters in 2023 as we did 20 years ago. But now it would mean the average council/Senate/Assembly race would go uncovered start to finish,” said a political consultant who asked for anonymity to speak freely. “This would dramatically strengthen the impact of (independent expenditure committees) and other unrestricted spending sources. … A rare situation that’s both bad for democracy and the consulting industrial complex’s bottom line.”
Others acknowledged that turnout would go up – “which is a good thing,” said another consultant who asked for anonymity. However, “the length of the ballot is my key concern, especially the mixture of RCV and regular voting. It will potentially disenfranchise voters due to confusion.”
Sure enough, low turnout isn’t the only concern about New York elections, Sasha Neha Ahuja of the Working Families Party pointed out. “Without robust voter education and engagement, as well as laws that help facilitate greater access to the ballot box, the more fragmented our elections are,” she said. “Elections every year – ‘off years’ especially – require that we are doing our due diligence.”
Bigger picture, thought Corey Ortega of HZQ Consulting, consolidation could save candidates money, or get their name out more. “It would be great for economies of scale, for running as a slate. The expenses go down per mailer, which allows for more mailers to go out,” he said. It could also save the city money by not having to run big elections some years. “It’s great for democracy because it leaves money in the budget to save a kitten from a tree or fund a library,” he said.
But that’s everyone else’s bottom line. “That would mean there’s an actual off year where nothing happens?” Ortega asked. “That’s not good for the consultant business.”