I Voted Yesterday But Almost No one Else Did

Note: This story originally appeared on my blog on September 13, 2017.

Yesterday, after a particularly trying day at work, I went to the neighborhood polling place to vote in New York City’s Democratic primary. Not only was this the primary for NYC Mayor, but Brooklynites were also asked to cast a ballot for Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson’s successor; Thompson died last year at age fifty after a brief illness.

I expected to wait in line for awhile. After all, it was almost seven o’clock in the evening, the polls closed at nine pm, and the world is filled with people who wait until the last minute to do everything.

I arrived, signed in, filled out my ballot, returned it, and wished the (surprisingly friendly) poll workers a good night in less than ten minutes. Ten minutes.

It took so little time because there were only two other voters there. In fact, there were more poll workers than voters.

Under most circumstances, this outcome would have had me drinking a cool tall glass of WTF??? Then I remembered that I live in New York, the land of low voter turnout.

While New York State has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the country during presidential races, the turnout rate for local political races in New York City is downright embarassing. Last night’s Democratic primary only attracted about 14% of New York City Democrats, one of the lowest voter turnouts in history.

There are many reasons for this. First, voter turnout rates for the United States as a whole are low. No one is required to vote; voter suppression and felon disqualification keep even more people away from the polls. The fact that Election Day is always on Tuesday — a Tuesday that isn’t a designated holiday — makes voting so inconvenient that many politically engaged people are forced to skip a trip to the polls. The lack of “no excuses” absentee voting in many states makes casting a ballot even more onerous.

There are even more factors that drive down turnout in statewide and local races. Many candidates in state and local elections run unopposed. Supporters of heavily favored candidates often don’t vote because they view their preferred candidate’s victory as an inevitability. Conversely, an unpopular candidate’s supporters may stay home because they feel there is no hope.

On top of all that, much of the electorate fails to understand that many of the political decisions that affect their lives are made at the local level. While the President of the United States has the power to set national policy, decisions about school funding, garbage pick-up, road repairs, law enforcement, building codes, and various other issues are made by local politicians. And these local politicians are almost always chosen by small numbers of people — people who don’t always have the best interests of their fellow citizens at heart.

Unless New York City comes up with a means of increasing participation before the general election, New York City’s newly elected (or newly re-elected) mayor will have only a few people to thank for victory.