Blog July 7, 2023

Boosting voter turnout in NYC’s local elections

If you are part of the 5BORO family, chances are that last week’s primary election was on your radar. But for the vast majority of New Yorkers, that may not have been the case. Or if they did know about the election, they didn’t feel compelled to vote. Just 5% of eligible voters turned out to cast a ballot. That is staggering, but also not surprising.

Our 2021 general election saw record low turnout, with only 23% of eligible, active voters in NYC showing up to cast a vote for the mayor –– the lowest turnout in seven decades. We’ve seen voter turnout in NYC decline in every local election since the turn of the century. This results in a disengaged and misrepresentative electorate and reduced accountability for elected officials, who may not feel compelled to address the concerns of constituents who do not vote.

So what should be done? 5BORO Policy Fellow Chase Behar took a look at a range of policies the City and State should consider adopting to boost voter turnout in local elections, as well as strategies that other cities and states have used successfully:

Move Local Elections to Even-Numbered Years

Currently, New York City holds its local elections in odd-numbered years, while state and federal races are held in even-numbered years. Many advocates support moving New York City’s municipal elections “on-cycle” — so they are held alongside gubernatorial, midterm, or presidential elections — to yield higher voter turnouts. Other U.S. cities boosted participation rates as much as 460% after moving local elections to the same year as state or federal races. In response to historically low voter turnout in New York City, a bill was introduced in Albany to move the majority of local town and county elections to even-numbered years.

Allow Same-Day Voter Registration

New York requires eligible voters to register at least 25 days before Election Day – one of the earliest registration cutoffs in the country. States that have same-day voter registration show 10% higher voter turnout than states without. Approximately 94,000 New Yorkers were unable to vote in the 2016 general election because they registered after the 25-day deadline, but before the 10-day New York State constitutional deadline. A 2021 ballot proposition that would have allowed the state legislature to implement same-day voter registration was defeated but has another chance of moving forward through state legislation.

Text-Based Resources for Voters

Data has shown that people are less likely to vote if they feel they lack knowledge about the candidates. This is particularly pronounced in local elections. To rectify this, two nonprofits in Boston partnered to send text messages to voters acknowledging they may not know who is on the ballot and pointing them to resources. The program reached more than 4 million occasional voters or non-voters in 2018 to help them make it to the polls.

Transportation to the Polls

A lack of access to reliable transportation can be a voting barrier. This disproportionately impacts elderly voters and people in wheelchairs. A range of places, including small towns like Lynchburg, Virginia and larger cities like Los Angeles, California, provide free public transportation on Election Day, which can also act as an incentive to vote. Some ride-hailing services focus on providing more equitable access to the polls for people with disabilities, like RideShare2Vote which partners with the ADA Accessible Ride Program to offer round-trip transportation to voters in wheelchairs in 12 states.

Recruit Younger Poll Workers

Engaging younger generations in the election process can be a valuable tool to create lifelong and committed voters. Several cities and states have implemented programs for students and residents to serve as poll workers even though they are not yet 18 years old or eligible to vote themselves. Minneapolis has a Student Election Judge Program, facilitating both paid and volunteer student positions on Election Day. Ohio has a similar program called Youth at the Booth. Right now, a Nebraska bill is pending that proposes that high school students could fulfill a graduation requirement by completing a shift as a poll worker.