In a country where voter turnout is lower than many of its democratic peers, New York stands out as a state (and city) where voters are among the most apathetic or, as Comptroller Scott Stringer and a coalition of other politicians are arguing, discouraged from voting.
"As New Yorkers head to the polls to elect our next president, it’s important to remember that voting is not only a fundamental right—it is the most important tool we have to ensure accountability in our democracy," Stringer said in a statement. "Turnout in recent elections in New York has been abysmal and yet our laws often prevent, rather than encourage, people from participating."
Stringer's recommendations include allowing same-day voter registration and early voting, and scolding but not overhauling the dysfunctional patronage mill that is the city Board of Elections. From his announcement:
In the 2008 presidential election, just 61 percent of registered [New York City] voters showed up to vote, the lowest ratio in any major American city.
In 2012, only 58 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the general election - the lowest rate since 1996 and the second-lowest on record.
In 2013, only 26 percent of registered New York City voters went to the polls in the general election, the lowest rate ever recorded, continuing a decades-long slide.
In the 2014 gubernatorial and midterm elections, only 25 percent of registered voters in New York City filled out a ballot - and New York State’s turnout was ranked 48th out of the 50 states.
In the case of the 2013 election, Mayor Bill de Blasio won by "a landslide" with just 753,000 votes while the overwhelming majority of New York City's 4.2 million registered voters stayed home. In 2014, Governor Andrew Cuomo won reelection with just 1.9 million votes, as again the majority of the state's 10.9 million registered voters skipped the polls. To see how many eligible voters don't vote in your neighborhood, take a gander at this map made by WNYC from 2009 election data:
A report by Stringer [pdf] highlights a list of ideas that would expand voter access, many of which have already been proposed in whole or in part by city and state legislators. The reforms include:
- Pre-registering 16- and 17-year-olds, with their registrations becoming active when they turn 18.
- Allowing Election Day registration, which is currently done in 12 states and Washington, D.C.
- Automatic voter registration, through the DMV and other government databases.
- Allowing absentee voting without having to offer a reason.
- Making Braille absentee ballots for blind people.
- Allowing in-person voting for seven days leading up to Election Day.
- Studying a mail voting system, versions of which are already in place in Oregon, Washington, and Colorado.
- Informing released prisoners that they have to re-register to vote, and allowing felons to vote while on parole.
- Asking the city BOE to tell registered voters about when elections are more than once a year, and doing it by email and text, in addition to mailed postcards and newspaper ads. (This would have helped avoid the mass confusion caused by a recent mailing to 60,000 newly registered voters telling them that the date of "the Primary Election" is in September, without specifying that the presidential primary is in April, and the primary in question is a state and local one.)
- Consolidate state and federal primary dates (which would also help with the situation referred to above).
- Expanding training and pay for poll workers.
- Ramping up poll inspections.
- Providing more translations of voter guides and making language services available at polling sites (the only state bills currently proposing more interpretation at the polls were introduced by state legislators in heavily Russian southern Brooklyn districts seeking Russian interpreters).
- Make ballots, designed for lever machines, more legible.
- Instituting instant runoff voting in New York City, which would save on the costs of primary runoffs by asking voters to rank candidates by preference, so that when the winner secures less than 50 percent of the vote, a candidate can be chosen through some additional math rather than another election.
The Democratic presidential contenders have both called for measures to counteract low voter turnout, with Hillary Clinton arguing for 20 days of early voting and automatic registration for all eligible people, and Sen. Bernie Sanders saying during the first debate, "We need to have one of the larger voter turnouts in the world, not one of the lowest." Republicans, generally, want to make it more difficult to vote.
De Blasio has said he's on board with doing something about the problem of low turnout—"For a long time, I have believed we need to make a fundamental series of reforms"—but he calls it a state issue. Cuomo, meanwhile, doesn't think it's an issue at all. From City & State's 2015 report:
In a radio interview a couple days after his re-election last November, Cuomo downplayed his poor showing. Despite New York underperforming nearly every other state, the governor laid the blame on the nationwide decline in voting and the lack of a strong gubernatorial challenger.
“There was no real state issues or state excitement or state energy,” he said in an interview with “The Capitol Pressroom.” “My race was never close. There were no big issues that were driving a state turnout that would overwhelm the national phenomenon. ‘Well, come out for the state Senate,’ was our best argument. You know what? State Senate? It’s hard to motivate people about a state Senate.”
Idea: all these proposals sound reasonable enough, but what about making voting compulsory? Sound crazy? Well, Australia does it, and the country is not alone. From the Washington Post:
[Australia is] one of 11 countries that have, and enforce, mandatory voting, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, and the nation most culturally similar to the United States.
Australia adopted compulsory voting in 1924 after turnout plunged from more than 70 percent in 1919 to less than 60 percent in 1922. By contrast, recent turnout by eligible voters in U.S. presidential election years has barely cracked 60 percent; in midterm elections, it has been hovering in the low 40s.
Australians who fail to vote can be fined (or, in theory, jailed for repeated no-shows). Interestingly, the mandate to vote is overwhelmingly popular, with about three-fourths of those polled supporting the requirement.
The police-state possibilities posed by such a measure/Americans' individualist-streak-disguising-deep-selfishness-and-nihilism will likely prevent it from ever happening. In the meantime, we're stuck with these guys.