There were nine days of early voting, a get-out-the-vote strategy by the city Board of Elections and dual gubernatorial contests on the ballot, but turnout in New York’s recent primary was still disappointingly low.

For election experts, the lackluster participation came as no surprise, with over 12% of total registered Democrats and Republicans in New York City casting a ballot, according to city voting data. The numbers fared slightly above past primaries, though nowhere near turnout in 2018.

Now, as the BOE prepares for a rare August primary – a result of a poorly executed redistricting process that split the gubernatorial contest from state Senate and congressional races – election experts predict turnout to be even lousier, leaving the outcome of local contests in the hands of just a fraction of New York City residents.

For BOE officials who administer elections and good government groups who promote participation, increasing voter turnout in the country’s most populous city has become a bewildering and perennial puzzle.

“There just isn’t one easy answer on how to raise turnout, unfortunately,” said Ben Weinberg, director of public policy of Citizens Union, a good government group. “Some of the reasons for low voter turnout run really deep.”

This election cycle, indifference, confusion and a belief their vote didn’t matter kept voters away from the ballot box, according to interviews of New York City residents.

Preparing voters

In an email to Gothamist, Vincent Ignizio, the BOE’s deputy executive director, said the agency will proceed with placing legal ads in newspapers and launching a print and social media campaign in all languages. Additionally, the BOE is relying on elected officials, candidates, campaigns and public interest groups to help get the word out. The BOE did not say if any of these strategies veered from standard protocol. Their efforts are routinely complemented by the city Campaign Finance Board, which publishes a voter guide for each election.

For Queens Councilmember Sandra Ung — chair of the Council’s governmental operations committee — the agency could easily improve upon drawing voters to the polls in August and beyond by enlisting help to get the vote out from community groups in areas where turnout is lowest.

“People do trust their local community groups, right? And moreover, from my point of view, local community groups do speak the language of that community,” Ung said. “So I think it's important for BOE to work with the community groups to get the message out there about voting.”

Sarah Steiner, an election attorney who has closely followed turnout in prior elections, doesn’t place the onus of lack of participation on the city BOE, but said the rollout of early voting could be better handled.

“I think that there have been so many elections lately — the special elections, each one of them has 10 days of early voting,” Steiner said. “I think voters don't understand what's going on and there hasn't been a consistent message to explain it to them or get them used to the idea that they can vote.”

I think voters don't understand what's going on and there hasn't been a consistent message to explain it to them or get them used to the idea that they can vote.

Election attorney Sarah Steiner

She recommends the state implement permanent, no excuse mail-in voting, a long-standing proposal in which the state would send out a ballot to voters who can’t, or don’t want to, come to the polls in person. The proposal failed when it was put before voters through a referendum vote in the November 2021 election. She pointed to states such as Colorado and Arizona, which have seen high voter turnout as a result of these systems. New York state had a similar program in the last two years due to COVID, but it served as a temporary measure.

“I think people like it, they're getting used to it and it's going to disappear,” Steiner said.

Weinberg of Citizens Union said election reforms can be pushed further, pointing to the same-day voter registration efforts as a way of increasing turnout. Similar to no-excuse mail-in voting, that measure was put forth before voters last year and failed.

“People have busy schedules, they work more than one job, they have to take care of their kids so they don’t always have the time to vote. But we need to do these things regardless of whether we see they have a direct and immediate effect on turnout and that’s because we as a city and as a state have an easy path to the ballot and to a poll site,” Weinberg said.

Evaluating the June primary

Although this past primary’s turnout figures are low when factoring in total voter enrollment, they are comparatively higher than past elections. Uncertified voting data in the June 28th primary shows roughly 12.3% of registered Democrats and Republicans in participated in the gubernatorial primary in New York City, minus the number of absentee ballots counted after the primary. Registered Democrats participated in greater numbers, with 12.7% of them voting in the election, compared to roughly 10% of Republicans. The numbers are considered low given the presence of two gubernatorial primaries, one for Democrats and the other for Republicans — a rare occurrence in New York City primaries.

This compares to 9.75% of voters who cast a ballot in the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial primary, according to certified voting results. Early voting wasn’t in effect, giving the electorate one day to decide whether then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo should be awarded the nomination over progressive Zephyr Teachout. That same year, Rob Astorino, the party’s nominee, ran unopposed. Four years before, Cuomo clinched the Democratic nomination uncontested. Just under 10% of combined registered Republicans and Conservative Party members came out to vote that year.

Higher turnout, it seemed, was an anomaly during the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary, when acrimony toward the presidency of Donald Trump, resentment toward a group of breakaway state Senators composed of the Independent Democratic Conference, and a contentious race between Cuomo and progressive candidate Cynthia Nixon attracted 900,742 New York City residents to vote.

This comprised just under 27% of the vote in that Democratic primary (there was no GOP gubernatorial primary in 2018). The 2018 primary took place in September, the last cycle before it was consolidated with the June primary. Weinberg of Citizens Union characterized that primary as “unusual,” driven mostly by New Yorkers raging at the 2016 presidential election that saw Trump win the White House.

“A lot of it was related to increased civic engagement after the Trump election,” Weinberg said.

They say, ‘Oh, we’re going to do this, we’re going to do that and then they disappear ... That’s why I don’t vote.

Bronx resident Arup Biswas

Conquering apathy

For New York City residents who did not cast a ballot, many have found elections fruitless, dispiriting or lacking a clear incentive to vote. Arup Biswas, a Bronx resident, said opportunistic local elected officials have turned him off from voting.

“They say, ‘Oh, we’re going to do this, we’re going to do that and then they disappear,” Biswas said. “That’s why I don’t vote.”

He said if he had time, he would vote in the August primary.

Paul Revson, an Upper East Side resident, declined to vote in the past primary knowing Democrats, who overwhelmingly outnumber Republicans in the city, would win.

“I felt whoever won on the Republican side wasn’t going to win anyway, so I felt there was no point in voting,” Revson, who plans on casting a ballot.

Michael McDevitt, also of the Upper East Side, said the current political climate – as illustrated by the January 6th hearings — has resulted in voters being disillusioned by politics.

Queens resident Kristen Lilley said voting was simply not a priority for her.

“I was busy with work at the time and I honestly forgot about it until the last minute,” Lilley said. “I’m just exhausted with everything.”

Still, there are some New Yorkers who do believe their vote is critical to the city’s representation, and make time to head to the polls. Vivien Lewis from the Upper East Side’s 76th Assembly District said she voted because it’s her civic duty — she was struck by how empty her polling site was on election day.

“I’ve heard it’s all around that people aren’t showing up at the polls, which makes me very worried,” she said.