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An Initial Look at Voter Turnout in the 2021 New York City Primaries


2 initial turnout

New York City voters voting (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


Nearly 1 million New York City voters cast ballots in the mayoral primaries last month, according to unofficial results released by the New York City Board of Elections, marking the city's most participated-in local election in decades. While still low by historical standards, the turnout dwarfed the 2013 primaries -- the last mayoral race to have both Democratic and Republican primaries and no incumbent running -- by roughly 245,000 votes.

Combined Democratic and Republican turnout was 23% of registered voters in those two parties, a total of 998,000 voters out of 4,327,000 registered Democrats and Republicans. Turnout among Democratic voters was higher, with close to 25% of the city’s 3.77 million registered Democratic voters casting ballots, either in-person or by mail, in the primary won narrowly by Eric Adams. That is an increase from the roughly 22% that participated in the 2013 primary where Bill de Blasio was victorious.

Only 10.5% of 566,500 Republican voters in the city went to the ballot box, nominating Curtis Sliwa by a wide margin. The registration numbers are as of February, the latest provided by the New York State Board of Elections.

Democratic turnout as a percentage of registered voters was slightly over three points higher than in 2013, while Republican turnout dropped about one percent. The number of registered Democrats has grown by close to half a million since 2013, and Republicans by about 50,000, though they make up roughly the same proportions of the electorate. The two sets of party primaries were somewhat similar in that the 2013 and 2021 GOP races were both two-candidate affairs while the two Democratic primaries were more crowded competitions. There were key differences, however, particularly a number of changes to voting and election laws.

The New York City primaries this year were the first citywide races to use the new ranked-choice voting method (which is only at play in special and party primary elections) and the first mayoral elections to have both early voting and universal access to absentee voting. They took place as covid vaccination efforts made ground and public life reopened after more than a year of pandemic-related restrictions, but also amid an ongoing spike in gun violence and with unemployment rates still high. It was the first major city election after the Trump administration and the heightened political engagement it ushered in, though it’s unclear how much that may have waned after President Biden’s win last year.

Democratic turnout this year did beat the party's presidential primary showing last June, just after the height of the pandemic and with Biden already assured of the nomination, by about 90,000 votes (between those elections, from February 2020 to February 2021, about 142,000 more Democrats were added to the voter rolls).

The roughly 938,000 Democratic vote count was also about 25,000 higher than it was in the 2018 primaries when Governor Andrew Cuomo was challenged by Cynthia Nixon and there many other competitive state-level races, though turnout as a percentage of registered Democrats dropped two points in this primary from those in 2018.

Coming as the mayor, comptroller, several borough presidents, and dozens of City Council members faced term limits, last month’s primaries featured hundreds of candidates, many of whom benefited from the city's public campaign finance matching system. It’s unclear how much of a role ranked-choice voting’s advent played in the size of some of the candidate fields, from mayor on down the ballot.

Adams, the term-limited Brooklyn borough president, declared victory this past week after preliminary results from the Board of Elections showed him beating former sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia by one percent after eight rounds of instant run-off tabulation. The Democratic primary, open to two-thirds of the total registered electorate, featured 13 candidates including a range of moderates and progressives, electoral veterans and first-time candidates. The Republican primary, which only drew about 60,000 voters citywide, was between Sliwa, a vigilante and radio personality, and businessman Fernando Mateo.

The primaries, with almost all of the contests on the Democratic side, also included races for comptroller, public advocate, all five borough president posts, and all 51 City Council seats, as well as state-level posts of two district attorneys (Manhattan and Brooklyn), and judicial positions.

The turnout "shows there was some interest among voters," said Jerry Skurnik, a longtime political consultant, in an interview with Gotham Gazette. "Is it because they feel the city's in some kind of existential crisis and they came out or is it because there were two women who had a serious chance of winning?" He also noted the racial diversity of the group of frontrunner candidates, with three Black candidates, one of whom was Afro-Latina, and one of Asian descent. "Did that increase turnout in those groups? We don't know that yet...but that's a possibility," he said. Skurnik, among others, will analyze the granular voter turnout data when it is available, including analysis of the names of those who voted to estimate racial and ethnic group participation.

The fact that there was a large eight-candidate top tier of Demcoratic mayoral candidates all spending millions of dollars likely helped with turnout. As did the crowded and competitive primaries for comptroller, borough president offices, Manhattan District Attorney, and dozens of City Council races, several with more than 10 candidates on the ballot.

Part of the turnout increase may be the result of robust public engagement done by community-based organizations and supported by the city, which mirrored the successful outreach to boost Census response rates last year. "I think what we saw at the polls was the result of a lot of successful community outreach and organizing to ensure voters were prepared as much as possible for this type of election under the ranked choice voting system," said Lurie Daniel Favors, interim executive director of the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College, over the phone.

"As it pertains to outreach within communities of African descent, we had a very successful census-based campaign. We used that campaign to help fuel the work that we were doing now," she added.

For Daniel Favors, the protests last summer against police brutality "really elevated the conversation about what civic engagement looks like." Part of that, she said, is a greater "awareness and understanding about the way in which the systemic levers of power can be manipulated, pulled, and operated to transfer benefits to traditionally marginalized communities."

Looking at a map of initial first-choice vote data, Adams' strong showing in the so-called "outer boroughs" -- especially in eastern Queens, central and eastern Brooklyn, and much of the Bronx -- stands out. "That population of more traditional Black voters tend to be a little bit more centrist, they may have progressive ideals but when it comes to that ballot box, they're very, very practical," Daniel Favors said, which helped propel Adams' rise. The fact that he was "from the community," having grown up in southeast Queens and lived as an adult in central Brooklyn, and a police reformer while serving for two decades in the NYPD earlier in his career also helped, she said.

Interesting dynamics played out across the five boroughs in comparison to 2013, the last time the city saw a competitive Democratic primary for mayor. The number of Democratic votes in Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Queens grew by about two-fifths (44%, 40%, and 39% growth, respectively) from 2013, while the vote count in Manhattan grew by 33%. The Bronx saw the lowest growth in Democratic votes, with a shift of 10%. The changes could be the result of shifts in the number of registered voters (itself a function of the population, which hasn't changed significantly, and enthusiasm to register), voters' enthusiasm to vote, or other factors like the impact of the pandemic, which devastated many Bronx communities.

Comparisons to the 2013 Republican primary are more erratic. Manhattan saw the total number of Republican ballots cast cut nearly in half, while the Republican vote count on Staten Island grew by about half. Queens saw no change in the Republican vote count and the count in the Bronx and Brooklyn dropped by 5% and 18%, respectively.

Voting Methods
About 191,000 of the nearly 998,000 votes were cast in person during the nine-day early voting period leading up to election day. The early voting turnout was about four times higher than it was in the presidential primary last June, which had a far less competitive Democratic primary and was plagued by fears of spreading COVID-19 at poll sites. Another 132,000 ballots were absentees mailed in or dropped off. That represents a decrease in absentee voting of two-thirds from last June, the first New York election to allow universal mail-in voting.

According to an analysis of unofficial BOE absentee data done by the CUNY Graduate Center's Center for Urban Research, the districts with the most absentee ballot returns were in Manhattan (the Upper East and West Sides, Midtown, and parts of Lower Manhattan) and Downtown Brooklyn. The areas with the lowest absentee return rates were Staten Island's South Shore and the South Bronx.

RCV Participation
When all the votes are counted and the official results released, the Board of Elections will release the full "vote cast record," with granular detail about the votes and ballots, which will show how voters approached the initial citywide use of ranked-choice voting and this election, including for mayor and all the other offices on ballots.

Exit polling conducted by good government group Common Cause New York and Rank the Vote NYC, a voting advocacy and education group, showed 83% of the Democratic voters surveyed ranked at least two mayoral candidates, 72% ranked three candidates, and 42% ranked five candidates. Eighty percent of white voters ranked more than three candidates compared with 72%, 66%, and 64% of Asian, Black, and Hispanic voters, respectively, according to the poll, Seventy-eight percent of respondents said they "understood Ranked Choice Voting extremely or very well" and about the same said they want the system in future elections.

"From the voters' standpoint, this was a very successful entry into a new system," Daniel Favors said. "I think the data supports the fact that with even more of the type of education and ground games that we saw, even more New Yorkers would have been that much more empowered to participate."

She attributed part of the success to the allure of the new format. "Once they realized it wasn't a winner take all system and the strength of their ballot would actually last further into the process, I think that gave people a sense of empowerment," she said. According to the exit poll, 41% of voters ranked candidates "because it gave them more of a say in who gets elected."

About 139,000 Democratic ballots were "exhausted" by the eighth-round face-off between Adams and Garcia, meaning voters didn't rank the two candidates anywhere on their ballots. When Maya Wiley, former counsel to de Blasio, was eliminated in the penultimate round of the still-unofficial instant runoff that factored in almost all the votes, 74,000 ballots were exhausted, while 129,000 went to Garcia and 50,000 to Adams, according to the BOE's unofficial tabulation. Adams then led over Garcia by 8,426 votes.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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