If We Want to Strengthen Democracy, Let’s Start in Our Back Yard

PHILANTHROPY NEW YORK — April 14, 2021 — As New York City heads into its most consequential local elections in a generation, we face a decades-long decline in democratic participation. One in four registered New Yorkers voted in each of the last three mayoral elections. The last time that at least half of all registered voters chose our mayor was in 1993. And the future is not looking bright: only 14% of voters under age 30 participated in our last mayoral election. These statistics are especially alarming given that voter turnout is even worse for primaries and lower-profile elections and because these dismal citywide figures also conceal deep participation disparities by neighborhood, income and education level, ethnicity, and race.  Compounding this, we face new hurdles as the city continues to battle the pandemic and uses ranked-choice voting for the first time.

Perhaps these numbers should not surprise us, considering the daunting challenges to voter participation in New York. After the state saw some of the lowest turnouts nationally in the 2016 presidential and 2018 midterm elections, electoral experts called New York’s voting system the worst in the country, noting it is disenfranchising its citizens. MIT’s Elections Performance Index ranks New York 49th among US states. New York rejects voter registrations and provisional ballots at rates well above the national average. The administration of absentee voting here has been plagued with issues that undermine the goal of ensuring more voters can participate. Our state and city boards of elections have been at the center of multiple recent scandals, including illegally removing about 200,000 New Yorkers from voter rollsthrowing out 20% of absentee ballots based on technicalities, and sending out 100,000 faulty absentee ballots to residents.

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