Why Is Voter Turnout In New York Usually So Dreadful?

This presidential primary is pretty exciting. Most New York races? Not so much.

New Yorkers are pretty excited about the upcoming primary on April 19, because for once, presidential candidates aren’t ignoring them. The state, which usually doesn’t host terribly competitive or interesting primaries, has two suspenseful contests this year. There are three New Yorkers running! The headlines are filled with hyperbole, calling this New York primary the most important one of ALL TIME. There’s going to be an actual debate in Brooklyn. State officials told the New York Daily News that they've seen an "unprecedented surge" in online voter registration.

All of the excitement feels a bit weird, given that New York primaries are usually a haven for predictability, or at least bad timing. New Yorkers last voted for a Republican presidential candidate back in 1984, and by the time the primary season usually rolls around to New York, the eventual winner is already leading the pack and suffering from a severe case of senioritis. In 2008, just 19.5 percent of eligible voters cast ballots during the presidential primary. Since 2000, presidential general election turnout in New York City has been steadily creeping downward. According to a study from the New York City Campaign Finance Board, "a greater portion of registered voters cast ballots in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia during the 2008 presidential and 2010 Congressional elections." In 2012, 1.4 percent of Republicans voted during the presidential primary. Things get even worse during midterm elections, when important state and local races take place: In 2010, New York had the fourth-lowest midterm turnout in the entire country. This isn’t a new trend, either. Back in 1999, the New York Times published an article with the headline, "With Little to Pique Interest, Most Voters Yawn."

"I'm afraid turnout is going to be pitiful," one state senator in Manhattan told the Times at the time. "The [election] has as much sex appeal as last week's dead fish, and what we're trying to do is generate interest, add a little oregano and spices to stimulate that dead fish." Some people aren’t positive that the exciting presidential primary will even lead to high turnout. When asked if he was feeling optimistic about the upcoming Tuesday election, Matthew Sollars, press secretary of the New York City Campaign Finance Board, emitted several elongated "hmms" that successfully communicated several tablespoons of skepticism. He added that New York had a "voter participation crisis."

There are a lot of reasons besides lack of excitement that New Yorkers don’t head to the polls at the same rate as their fellow Americans. Most significantly, the state still makes voting more complicated than it needs to be. Many of the states that boast high turnout have adopted early voting and same-day registration. New York has neither of these things. It’s not just that voters aren’t going to the polls — New Yorkers aren’t registering at the same rate as voters in other states, either, says Jonathan Brater, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice Democracy Program. After falling near the bottom of the rankings for voter registration during the 2012 election, the state began offering online registration through the DMV. However, if many of your voters are coming from a city where driving is optional, that may not be the most efficient way to get as many people signed up as possible.

New York is also one of 11 states that still holds closed primaries — which means you have to register with a party if you want to vote. According to the latest election data, there are nearly 2.5 million voters unaffiliated with one of the state’s major parties — voters who will thus be unable to pick their favorite candidate come April 19. The registration deadline for this primary was March 25, and first-time voters could choose a party until the last moment. If you were one of those already unaffiliated voters, or a member of another party who wanted to switch allegiance, however, you had to make that decision by October 9 of LAST YEAR.

In short: New York's miserable turnout numbers? No wonder.

But why has New York, at the forefront of so many progressive issues, been so slow to adopt voting-rights reforms? The fact that New York legislators have benefited from the noncompetitive nature of elections and the status quo may have helped. If the few voters who do vote keep reelecting the same politicians with whom residents writ large also claim to be endlessly frustrated, why would you change the rules? Brater says it might take a big unavoidable Election Day problem for changes to finally happen; in 2012, excessively long lines across the country inspired President Obama to call for a bipartisan election administration commission, which recommended many changes that states are adopting today.

Some New York officials and advocates are trying to convince legislators to make changes now, given that New York’s turnout levels keep getting increasingly embarrassing. NYC Votes, a voter outreach campaign affiliated with the New York City Campaign Finance Board, is currently trying to collect petition signatures before its trip to lobby legislators on May 3. Several lawmakers have been pushing legislation that would make it easier to vote for years, although none of them have been considered yet. These changes would move the party enrollment deadline (now obscenely early because party officials are terrified of "party raiding") closer to Election Day, institute early voting, or maybe even make voter registration automatic.

However, even if the legislature decides to adopt a few of these policies this year, that won’t do much to increase turnout on April 19 — or turnout for the many other elections in the state this year. The best-case scenario would have the laws going into effect before the mayoral race next year.

So, New Yorkers have to work with what they’ve got. And Sollars has seen at least one development recently that he thought was "very encouraging." The Campaign Finance Board held its second annual Student Voter Registration Day last March, and went around to high schools around the city trying to register eligible 18-year-olds. Before the drive, there were 16,000 18-year-olds registered to vote. Around 8,500 students were registered on Student Voter Registration Day, about a 50 percent increase. "These students are willing and hungry to get involved," he says, “but they simply want to be asked to participate."

Around the state, campaigns will be doing the same thing for voters of all ages this month, as volunteers knock on doors and call up neighbors, trying to get them to turn out. When the excitement migrates to another state, and the high stimulated by an unfamiliar election buzz fades, we’ll see if the state has the will to try to stage a repeat.