When Mayor Bill de Blasio was reelected for a second term, he made an unusual commitment. Long-known for wanting to “End the Tale of Two Cities,” he now pledged to make New York the “Fairest Big City" and he would do it by bolstering local democracy.
“You can't fight for greater equality with less democracy,” de Blasio said.
With the backdrop of a Trump presidency, a growing wave of activism across the country, and local electoral dysfunction, de Blasio pitched a 10-point plan called DemocracyNYC as part of his 2018 State of the City address. The work generally fell into three big buckets centered on electoral democracy, the 2020 census, and civic engagement. The results were decidedly mixed, hampered by a global pandemic and uneven investment across the different initiatives.
While the health of American democracy has become an increasing concern in the years since de Blasio laid out his plan, brought into sharp relief by the historic insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, the threats to voting rights and civic engagement are not always that seismic and can come in the form of mundane statistics.
New York City has long suffered from declining voter turnout in municipal general elections compounded by years of headline-grabbing problems and a consistently botched election administration. Among the most troubling events was the New York City Board of Elections’ (BOE) illegal purge of nearly 120,000 voters in Brooklyn ahead of the 2016 presidential primary.
The mayor responded by offering the beleaguered BOE $20 million dollars to make a series of operational reforms, which they refused. The gesture was performative because the city is obligated to fund elections. But it served to underscore the limits of the mayor’s ability to reform the city BOE, which derives its power from state election law.
That’s also why his democracy plan was primarily built around initiatives the city could tackle on its own. Here’s a closer look at de Blasio’s legacy on democracy.
As part of a push to reform elections, the city was among those supporting a series of pro-voter measures, like early voting and electronic poll-books, that passed the state legislature in 2019. But at the heart of the mayor’s democracy plan was a new Chief Democracy Officer, who would be tasked with registering 1.5 million new voters by the end of the second term.
The first person de Blasio appointed to the role, Ayirini Fonseca-Sabune, resigned from the position in early 2020 and was replaced by Laura Wood, who has worked in the office through the duration of the pandemic and holds the title to this day.
An attorney who spent time with the state legislature and attorney general’s office before coming to City Hall, Wood was part of the team that successfully defended the city against a lawsuit from the city BOE that sought to block additional language translation services at the polls.
While that marked a significant victory for de Blasio, the city fell short on the voter registration front, achieving a net of just 600,000 new voters on the rolls. Wood defended that figure, citing the challenges of the pandemic and the state’s failure to fund and enact an online voter registration system.
When it came to ranked-choice voting, which was implemented in the city for the first time during the June primaries, her team partnered with the Campaign Finance Board and other community groups to raise awareness about the new voting system. The city ultimately sank $15 million into a last-minute public information campaign during the spring leading up to the primaries. In those highly-competitive races, the city actually saw higher-than-expected turnout for municipal primary contests.
That's contrasted with the most recent general election, where there was record low turnout. There was no similar investment to get out the vote, nor is it clear how much the city was willing to spend to achieve its voter registration targets. An inquiry to the Independent Budget Office found the city allocated less than $400,000 to the Democracy NYC initiative each year.
“The reality is that this work is not something that can be done in three or four years, when you really commit to revitalizing democracy and defending it against repeated attack,” said Wood.
She noted that few could have imagined that just three years after de Blasio proposed his democracy agenda the nation would witness an insurrection by those who refused to accept the 2020 presidential election results.
“We have tremendous forces that we are up against,” Wood added, “and we need to double down and continue this work.”
To lead the city’s 2020 census effort, the mayor tapped Julie Menin. She previously had served as his Commissioner for the Department of Consumer Affairs and Commissioner of Media and Entertainment. The city allocated $40 million towards the count, which is crucial to determining how much money the city receives back from the federal government.
That investment allowed Menin to build an army of 150 trusted community organizations with ambassadors who worked to explain why completing the census mattered and encourage people to fill it out. They also paid for 34 media campaigns in 26 languages.
“The clear message was you need to fill the census out because it means more money for our schools, for transportation, for affordable housing,” said Menin. “We really were able to connect it to a measurable difference in people's lives,” she added.
Ultimately, New York City came in fifth among the top ten biggest cities in the country when it comes to self-response rate to the census.
“We beat Los Angeles and Chicago, Miami, and Boston and Philadelphia,” said Menin.
Menin is now a Councilmember-elect for District 5 on Manhattan's east side. She said she is committed to advocating for this model — relying on trusted voices — to engage New Yorkers in other important ways, whether it means using it to deliver social services and healthcare or simply to engage residents when it comes to registering and turning out to vote.
“To not utilize that model is quite frankly shameful,” she said.
Other experts who routinely work with census data argue the jury is still out when it comes to understanding what drove New York City’s increased population count, which grew by 600,000 compared to 2010, and whether the investment of resources yielded the best results.
Steve Romalewski, director of the CUNY Mapping Service at the Center for Urban Research at the Graduate Center, pointed to work done by the city’s Department of City Planning to ensure additional city addresses were identified and included in the master file used for counting.
“This doesn't take away from the city's outreach efforts during 2020. But without the Planning Department's early groundwork, even if the city had a higher 2020 Census self-response rate, the city may still have suffered from a substantial undercount, and the Big Apple's official population may even have registered a decline,” said Romalewski via email.
The mayor established a civic engagement commission through a city charter amendment approved by voters in 2018. Expanding language access has been a key focus, but members of the commission expressed frustration that the pandemic interrupted their work and limited their ability to do face-to-face outreach.
At the same time, since the commission is now written into the city charter, it means it will outlast the current administration so there is an opportunity for their work to continue and go deeper into communities. Murad Awawdeh is head of the New York Immigration Coalition and was appointed to the body by the mayor. His term runs through 2023, and he said he’s focused on how their outreach efforts can pick up during the Adams administration.
“So that we're bringing in more people into our democracy across the board, not just within elections, but in every type of decision making process that is happening across the city,” said Awawdeh.
As an example, he cited participatory budgeting, in which Council members give their constituents a say in how to allocate a certain amount of funds for their community. Awawdeh is also one of the proponents of a newly-passed Council bill that would grant voting rights in local elections to some 900,000 legal permanent residents who are not yet citizens.
Grading De Blasio on Democracy
“I think what's happened here in New York represents real progress,” said Deepak Bhargava, a distinguished lecturer at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies. “It's part of this kind of broader trend of pro-democracy measures in democratic cities and states that's a relatively recent origin,” he added, pointing to the geographic divide between red states and cities that have enacted more voter suppressive measures, with blue states and cities that have done the opposite.
Specifically, he cited California, Virginia and New York, which have all expanded the number of days that people can vote. While Bhargava made clear there was still room for much improvement, he said New York City was actually at the vanguard by trying to tackle these issues at the local level.
Among community leaders working on democracy issues here in the city, the assessment of the mayor’s plan was less rosy.
Eddie Cuesta, the executive director of Dominicanos USA, an organization that works to help people from the Dominican Republic achieve naturalization and register to vote, called the mayor’s plan, “well-intended,” noting the complexity of the mayor’s democracy initiatives and how the pandemic interrupted his efforts.
“That said, perhaps he over promised in setting an ambitious goal of registering 1.5 million new voters without providing sufficient funding for civic engagement nonprofit organizations to help him meet that goal,” Cuesta said via email.
While he credited de Blasio for investing $15 million to educate voters on ranked-choice voting for the June 2021 primary election, “funding to register voters was limited or nonexistent, left largely to grant-making foundations and other donors to support,” Cuesta added.
Susan Lerner, the head of Common Cause New York and a leader of the city’s effort to implement ranked-choice voting, said she believed that de Blasio made a concerted effort to promote democracy reforms and help New Yorkers be more civically engaged.
“As with any policy maker, it’s rare that 100% of the vision is actually implemented,” said Lerner.
This article is part of our Grading de Blasio series, assessing the mayor’s performance during his two terms in office. You can see other stories in the series here.
Dec. 13, 2021, 5:20 p.m.: Following publication, this article was updated to correct the number of large cities New York surpassed in its self-response rate to the census. It was fifth, not first, among the top 10 cities. Additionally, we added context and a quote from Steve Romalewski, director of the CUNY Mapping Service.