Demographics
Internet resources for what you need to know on NYC Elections and Voting
Five Favorite Sites For Beginners

The Topic
"Elections" refers to the processes through which candidates appeal to the citizenry, and the citizenry chooses who among those candidates will represent them. Also known as: the basis of democracy; a passť phenomenon. Near synonyms: voting, campaigns.
The Context
By and large, New Yorkers don't vote. Though the number of registered voters who turn out on election day has fluctuated, the overall trend has been downward. Fewer people voted in 1997 than in 1953, though the number of registered voters rose by more than a million (never mind how many more were eligible). In the last School Board election, a mere 3.3% of those eligible actually voted. This declining turnout has been a gradual process that has become a reality of NYC politics.
The Reporter
Susan Reefer is a Republican pollster and media strategist. Both are based in New York. Elizabeth Daniel is an associate counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, working on issues relating to campaign finance reform, voter choice, and ballot access
The Archives
See past monthly updates for Voting.

by Susan Reefer

Winning Ballot Proposal

The election that took place on November 5th was remarkable for New York City only in the sense of how unremarkable it was. Almost all incumbents in New York City were re-elected, and turnout citywide was at a record low. The election result that may have the greatest long-term impact to the city's electoral process was also the least anticipated.

Ballot Proposal One was the only ballot proposal voters faced this election. It was the result of a Charter Commission recommendation that city voters change the way we elect new mayors in the instance of a mayoral vacancy. Although this may sound like a minor technicality in a very unlikely event, it has been a controversial issue in the city ever since former Mayor Rudy Giuliani made a bid for U.S. Senate in 2000. At that time, under city law, his election to higher office would have meant that the public advocate would have filled the vacant position of mayor. The public advocate at the time was Mark Green. Not only would Mark Green have taken over as mayor in November of 2000, but he would have remained as mayor for more than a year, until months after the next election.

Whatever issues of electoral impropriety this may have raised for Giuliani and his supporters, it was nothing compared to the idea of a political nemesis taking over and being given carte blanche for more than a year. Mayor Giuliani put together a ballot proposal designed primarily to enact a new rule of succession, to keep the public advocate from taking over as mayor. That proposal, which appeared on the ballot in the 2000 primary election, failed to pass.

When the issue re-emerged earlier this year, it was now part of election reform heralded by the new mayor, Mike Bloomberg. This mayor had his own ideas about how city elections should be changed, including an idea to make all citywide elections non-partisan. This idea and others were put before the charter revision commission, the panel whose ultimate decision determines what will make it onto the ballot, and in what form.

The charter revision commission decided on a ballot proposal that addressed the issue of succession; the issue of non-partisan elections was not going to appear on the ballot, at least for now. The final proposal had two major provisions. It requires a special election in the event of a vacancy to elect an interim mayor, and it gives the Council Speaker the role of presiding over council meetings, instead of the public advocate.

Ballot proposals are different kinds of elections than those to elect candidates. When candidates go head to head, chances are, most people that show up at the polls will pick one or the other. It's a choice between two different outcomes. Ballot proposals are affirmative choices; if you don't like the proposal, you vote no. If you aren't sure if you like it, you vote no. If you don't know that much about it and you don't want to make the wrong choice, you vote no. In order for a proposal to pass on election day, the support has to be consistent, well informed, and highly motivated. When pollsters measure support for a ballot proposal, they know that support for the proposal must measure at least two-thirds of likely voters, or chances are, the measure won't pass, even if it only requires fifty percent.

There is also a certain predisposition to ballot measures, depending on where they appear. Historically, the states and localities in the eastern part of the country were initially set up and governed according to models based on the federal Constitution. These states and cities typically have strong constitutions and a traditional reluctance to legislate through the ballot box. Western states and cities were founded later in the country's history, with stronger executive powers and fewer legislative statues. In western states such as California, a statewide election may have 20 ballot initiatives, most of them highly controversial and fiercely contested.

Within this context, it is no easy task to pass a ballot proposal here in New York. This particular ballot proposal was also haunted by the failed charter revision proposal of more than two years ago. Those in favor of the measure argued that the public advocate, while elected citywide, was not elected as mayor, and the voters had the right to elect a new mayor when the situation might arise. And they felt the role of presiding over council meetings was a legislative leadership function, not the role of someone who could hold the job of mayor during a vacancy, until a special election might be held. Those against the measure felt that the sixty days before a special election was not enough time to effectively campaign. They were also concerned that the charter revision commission did not have enough time to put together the proposal, having finalized it over the summer. But ultimately it did pass, quietly, with little fanfare, in a relatively quiet election.

It is hard to speculate on what finally motivated the voters to make the choices they did. It may be as simple as the proposal made sense to enough voters to pull the lever next to the "yes" box. It may be true that during a time when leadership is so important to our city, voters wanted to ensure that clear lines of succession were in place. And it may also be true that voters have a new sense of urgency, one that trumps a previous reluctance, to make those decisions that need to be made, now while there is still time and opportunity.

Of course, it could also be that few people actually saw the ballot proposal when they got into the booth. Far more people voted for governor in New York City than voted for the ballot proposal one way or another.


Five Favorite Sites For Beginners:

  • NYVote.com - "New York's Online Political Source"
  • The Center for Responsive Politics - The definitive site for campaign financing. Searchable databases by state and zip code allow you to learn how much candidates have raised, and who has contributed to their campaigns. Indispensable.
  • Vote NYC - The New York City Board of Elections. A simple yet thorough primer on voting. How, when, where and why to vote in New York City.
  • The NYC Voter Assistance Commission - Yet another NYC site that provides the ABC's of voting -- in Spanish, English, Korean, Russian and Greek. Voter reg forms, info on the election year calendar, registration deadlines and elected officials. Learn how to become an election day worker: promote democracy and earn some extra cash.
  • Project Vote Smart - A wonk's delight. Enter your zip code to find out who represents you. Extensive information about candidates in all levels of government. Searchable by state, with excellent state legislative links. Biographies and (largely unflattering) pics of all NY legislators. Info on ballot measures too.
  • NYC Campaign Finance Board - Information on the financial particulars of candidates and their campaigns. The searchable database on contributions is both impressive and easily accessible: who gave money to whom and how much.
  • The City Council - The indispensable road map to NYC legislators and legislative info. Find out who represents you and every other imaginable detail about the Council's workings: rules, hearings, committees, news, legislative agenda, and the list goes on. Links to all other City government sites.


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