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Turnout in NYC’s primary was tragically low again. Here are 6 experts’ ideas on how to fix that.

From same-day registration to nonpartisan primaries to switching election dates, NYC has options to create change. Does it have the will?

August 25, 2022 Rachel Holliday Smith, THE CITY
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Absentee ballots are still trickling in, likely putting voter turnout in New York’s late-summer primary just above double digits.

At least 237,000 people cast ballots through in-person voting, and at least 39,000 returned absentee ballots, which means at least 12% of 2.3 million voters with eligible contests cast ballots in those races.

Election and voting experts who spoke with THE CITY said it’s hard to compare this summer’s primary — bifurcated at the last minute after a long and chaotic redistricting process — to any other. But the contests underscored a number of ways turnout can be improved in New York, a city with years of notoriously low voting rates under its belt.

Here are just some of their ideas to boost the numbers at the polls, next time around:

State Sen. Zellnor Myrie, chair of the Committee on Elections

Try again for no-excuse ballots and same-day registration: “Commonsense things that we saw implemented as emergency procedures during the pandemic, obviously, are not in place now,” he said, referring to a failed ballot referendum from last year that would have implemented no-excuse absentee ballots and same-day registration.

To make that happen, Albany legislators will have to approve a constitutional amendment over two consecutive sessions, then bring the measure to voters — again.

“That’s certainly something that we should be looking at and something that I look forward to having further discussions on,” Myrie said.

Keep up the confidence: “What we saw in this election and in the early voting: There weren’t as many hiccups as we’ve seen in the past. There weren’t blaring headlines about any particular failure at the Board of Elections,” he said. “I think that’s a really good start for folks to feel more comfortable with the process and say, ‘Okay, well, there wasn’t any major screw up.’ That will instill confidence.”

Ester Fuchs, professor of public affairs and political science, Columbia University

Open up the primaries: Though New York is “primarily a Democratic city,” not everyone is registered with a major party, Fuchs said. In fact, 1.1 million people in NYC are registered with neither major party, state Board of Elections records show.

New York’s closed primaries — where only people registered with a party can vote — are effectively the only real election. That’s problematic, Fuchs thinks.

“You are effectively disenfranchising, in the most important election of the city, independent voters,” she said. In NY-10, for example, “if you didn’t vote in this primary, you’re not getting a meaningful choice in the general election.”

“Having nonpartisan primaries, where the two highest vote-getters — regardless of what party they’re in — would then run off in the general election would probably be the fairest way to run an election in New York,” she said.

People vote early at Brooklyn Borough Hall in the 10th Congressional District primary, Aug. 17, 2022. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Frederick Shaffer, NYC Campaign Finance Board chair

Switch city elections to even-numbered years: Back in the late 19th century, New York City made the switch from elections on even-numbered years to “off cycle,” meaning odd-numbered years that do not correspond to state or federal elections. Why? It’s complicated, but in part it was done “to depress voter turnout and thereby weaken the Democratic machine,” Schaffer wrote in a January op-ed advocating for making the switch back — to coincide with either gubernatorial races, or presidential contests.

“It’s clear that you can meaningfully significantly increase turnout by doing that,” Shaffer told THE CITY, reflecting his own views and not those of the CFB.

A number of cities including Phoenix, Austin, El Paso and Baltimore have made that switch in the past 20 years and saw big jumps in turnout after doing so, he said. But the change would have to come from the state constitution, which would be an uphill climb.

“It’s hard because politicians don’t like change.”

Create nonpartisan primaries: Like Fuchs, Shaffer would also like to see the city implement open primaries. Former mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to make that happen in 2003, but the measure failed in the face of opposition from the City Council and labor unions.

“He chose a very bad year to do it. I think it’s absolutely the right idea, but he chose an off year,” he said.

Shaffer thinks it would boost voter participation among the more than a million independent voters in the city. And making it happen would require legislation from the City Council, not a state constitutional amendment.

“It would be, in theory, the more easy reform to accomplish,” he said.

Lena Cohen, senior policy analyst at United Neighborhood Houses

Rock the vote at settlement houses — and places like them: At UNH, an umbrella organization that assists and supports 40 settlement houses in New York City, Cohen and her staff have tracked how much voting happens among the people who interface with programs or services at a settlement house — a local nonprofit group with roots in the early 20th century anti-poverty reform movement — versus the rest of the city.

The results, published in a recent report, are clear: Citywide turnout in last year’s city primary was 22%, while voters who pledged to cast ballots through settlement houses had 41% turnout. The trend held for previous city elections, too; in 2017, the figures were 25% and 38%, respectively, and in 2013, they were 26% and 34%.

For her, it comes down to trust, and a lot of phone calls.

“Doing the hard, in-person voter outreach, cold-call conversations … and then following up those first touches with a second and third conversation from that same settlement house saying, ‘Hey, just following up making sure you feel ready, able, and comfortable to vote,’” she said.

“We’re using the tools that we see a lot of our partners in the GOTV space using, but we’re just really focusing on reaching out to the individuals that exist in our communities — folks that will recognize, ‘Oh, Henry Street settlement on the Lower East Side is calling me. Yes, I’ll answer.’ It’s a little different than a campaign,” she said.

Susan Lerner, executive director at Common Cause NY, and Bill Chong, board member of Rank the Vote NYC and former commissioner of the Department of Youth and Community Development

Universal ranked choice voting: At a post-Primary Day briefing on Wednesday, Lerner and Chong said they have noticed “many voters” in New York’s 10th Congressional District were disappointed that “they couldn’t rank their candidates for Congress just as they’ve enjoyed ranking their candidates for city office in 2021,” Lerner said.

“We observed strategic voting in congressional District 10, in which voters felt forced to choose a candidate based on their belief that they had the best chance of winning against another candidate,” she said. “Unfortunately, this often meant pitting two women of color against each other.”

Their solution: The state should implement universal ranked choice voting for all elections, not just municipal ones. Doing that would require Albany lawmakers to change election law.

“The legislature has control. And it’s really up to the voters to communicate with their representatives how they want to see elections have run,” she said.

Ban elections during summer vacation: Chong had one piece of advice for officials looking for ways to boost turnout.

“Don’t have an election two weeks before Labor Day,” he said. “I mean, it was a recipe for low turnout.”

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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