Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics




Campaign 2003 - Primary Day: Guide to the Last Minute Voter


Last Minute Voter's Guide:
• Who Is On the Ballot?
• Who Is Running in My District?
• What Is At Stake?
• Which Races Are Competitive?
• Where Do I Vote?
• Problems At the Polls?
• How Do I Find Out Who Won?

related links:
• Complete Election Coverage
• Primary Election Results
• Find Your Polling Place

related articles:
• City Council Campaign 2003
• Ballot Bumping in New York
• History of NY Election Law

Like many New Yorkers, Harlem resident Paul Ryneski first learned about this fall's election when City Councilmember James Davis was shot by a political rival in City Hall in July.

Since then, Ryneski has been trying to pay attention to his local City Council race - noting the campaign posters on street corners, reading the newspapers, and saving the Board of Election's postcard with the location of his polling place.

Still he admits that when it comes to issues - things like taxes, education, or housing - he has trouble telling the Democratic candidates apart. "I couldn't really tell if there is a difference between the three candidates [in Harlem]," said Ryneski.

Even for New York's most attentive voters, this year's City Council campaign has been difficult to follow.

There are no races for higher office to generate media attention and half of the 51 incumbent council members have no primary opponent. Even in the competitive races many incumbents have kept a low profile, skipping debates and public forums.

Still, the Primary Election on Tuesday - which will effectively decide 95 percent of City Council races given the overwhelmingly Democratic voters in New York - will have repercussions for the future of the city.

The 51 members of the City Council approve the city's budget and are responsible for tax increases and budget cuts. The council passes the laws governing the city. And council members make decisions that affect their individual neighborhoods - where housing is built, which community organizations are funded, and if a classroom gets computers.

For those voters looking for some help on Primary Day, we offer the following guide:

• Who Is On the Ballot?
• Who Is Running in My District?
• What Is At Stake?
• Which Races Are Competitive?
• Where Do I Vote?
• What If I Encounter Problems At the Polls?
• How Do I Find Out Who Won?

Who Is On The Ballot?

City Council: All 51 City Council members must run for reelection this year, but there are only 24 primary races on September 9. In the remaining districts, the incumbent is facing no challengers or all of the challengers were already knocked off the ballot.

In New York, which has some of the most complicated election laws in the nation, knocking your opponent off the ballot is a routine aspect of the political game. Dozens of candidates for City Council were eliminated on technicalities. And many more potential challengers did not even bother running, knowing that they would face huge legal bills and hours in court defending their right to run. (Read Ballot Bumping in New York for more these laws and why candidates were kicked off.)

All of the City Council primary races are for the Democratic party nomination, with the exception of district 5 on the Upper East Side which has a Republican primary.

Judicial Races: There are also a handful of judicial primary races for Civil Court: one in Manhattan, three in Brooklyn, and two in the Bronx. (See a list of candidates running for Civil Court Judge)

No Ballot Questions: There will NOT be any ballot questions on Primary Day, but Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Charter Commission will put several questions on the November 4 ballot, including one that would eliminate party primaries. In addition to nonpartisan elections, the commission will also put two other questions on the ballot dealing with the way the city buys goods and services, and the operations of city government. (For more information on nonpartisan elections, read It Is Time For Non-Partisan Elections In NYC by Frank J. Macchiarola and Instead of Non-Partisan Elections, Consider Some Real Reforms by Mark Green.)

Who Is Runnng In My District?

On Primary Day, some voters will find they live in a different City Council district than the last time they went to the polls.

Since the last local election in 2001, the City Council district lines were redrawn to reflect new census data, and so some voters have new representatives. Those who live on the edge of a district or in a neighborhood that has experienced a large change in ethnic make-up are most likely to see a change. (Read more about the City Council redistricting and the controversy it generated.)

The best way to find your district is to:

1. Go to Gotham Gazette's Campaign 2003 page.
2. Type in your address.
3. Click "Find It!"
4. Click on the Campaign Button in the top right hand column.

On the district page, you will find a list of candidates running, information about their campaign contributions, candidate biographies, and an archive of news stories from the campaign trail.

There is also information on how each council member voted on the dozen most divisive votes of the last two years - like the 18.5 percent property tax increase, the law that banned smoking in bars and restaurants, and a resolution urging the U.S. not to go to war with Iraq.

What Is At Stake?

While many New Yorkers may not be able to name their City Council member, most have something to say about issues like taxes, trash pick-ups, firehouse closures, or the school system, for which council members are responsible.

One of the City Council's primary responsibilities is approving the city's $44 billion budget. In the last two years, the City Council has approved increases to the property tax, sales tax, and income tax for the wealthiest New Yorkers. Just a few months ago, the council voted on a budget that cut 4,000 city workers and closed six firehouses. Next year, the city is expected to have a $2 billion deficit, which means that more cuts may be needed.

The council is responsible for passing laws that govern the city. This fall, the council is scheduled to consider legislation:

- Requiring gun owners to buy liability insurance

- Ensuring that the city notify residents if a homeless shelter will be built in the neighborhood

- Mandating weekly trash pick-ups

- Requiring landlords to clean up lead dust in apartments.

Council members also fight for funding for local community groups, little league teams, library improvements, and classroom computers.

Which Races Are Competitive?

The most watched race this year has been the campaign to fill the vacant seat of slain City Councilmember James Davis, who was shot in City Hall in July. Davis's brother, Geoffrey Davis, has been selected as the only Democratic nominee and there will be no primary for district 35. Four candidates will face off in the November general election.

But there are some primary races to watch.

In the north Bronx in district 12, Shirley Saunders, who lost to Larry Seabrook by just 103 votes in 2001, is running again and challenging the record of the incumbent. "I think people have seen Larry Seabrook more over the last three months [campaigning] than they have in all of sixteen years," said Saunders.

In district 18 Soundview and Parkchester, incumbent Councilmember Pedro Espada Jr. has dropped out of the race and handed his seat to his son Pedro G. Espada. He is facing a new challenger, Annabel Palma, who is backed by the Bronx Democratic Party.

In district 34 in Bushwick, Brooklyn, affordable housing has emerged as the number one issue in an area where the waterfront is being developed and trendy neighborhoods have pushed out long time residents. Incumbent City Councilmember Diana Reyna is facing a strong challenge from Juan Martinez, a former community school president.

In district 45, a nondescript building in East Flatbush could determine the political future of City Councilmember Kendall Stewart. He owns the building and blamed recent violations on his tenants. His challengers say he is not serving the community. "He is a slumlord," said one of his opponents.

For more races, read A Dozen Races To Watch.

Where Do I Vote?

Registered voters should have received a yellow post card in the mail with the address of their polling place. If you did not, call the Board of Elections at 1-866-VOTE NYC, try the board's poll site locator web site, or e-mail them at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. with your complete address, and you should receive an email instructing you where to vote.

Polls open at 6:00 a.m. and close at 9:00 p.m. Absentee ballots must be hand-delivered to the Board of Elections by 9:00 p.m.

What If I Encounter Problems At The Polls?

If you have problems at your polling site on Election Day, call the New York Public Interest Research Group Voter Help Line 212-822-0282 to register your complaint.

On their website, the New York Public Research Interest Group also has a instructions for how to work the voting machine and a Voter's Bill of Rights, which answers basic questions like "Can I bring someone with me to help vote?" and "Can I still vote if the machine breaks?" (The answer to both questions is "yes.")

How Do I Find Out Who Won?

Television stations and newspapers will cover the City Council races, but some results - like judicial races - are more difficult to find.

Visit Gotham Gazette's Results Page on election night and the following days. Remember, a close race can take days or weeks to decide.


Special Elections

In four special elections on February 25th, voters in the Bronx and Brooklyn fill two vacant city council seats, in District 18 and District 43, for the remainder of each term, which is until the end of this year. In addition, two state assembly races are on the ballot also in Brooklyn and the Bronx.

With special elections, the rules that apply to regularly scheduled elections change completely. The nature of a special election changes the dynamics of the campaign process, both for the candidates and for the voters.


Strategists love to say that campaigns have three resources: people (the candidate being the chief among them), money, and time. Of these three, the most valuable is time. It is the only resource that is non-renewable. (As we have seen, sometimes tragically, even candidates can be replaced). A compressed timeframe means a candidate must conduct an entire campaign in the time that under different circumstance might be spent choosing a campaign headquarters, hiring staff and picking out letterhead.

Less time to campaign does not change the ultimate goal: successfully communicating a winning message to persuadable voters. What it does mean is that the message gets shorter, the communication gets louder, and the voters become fewer in number. With less time to test different messages, or try different audiences, candidates are forced to hone in on one basic message, get that message out in a consistent, repetitive, frequent manner, and target it to the most high-interest, highly motivated, likely voters they can identify.


Turnout is the single most important factor affecting the outcome of any campaign. In most campaign surveys, pollsters measure the support a candidate has among the hard-core, "registered to vote on my eighteenth birthday," kind of voters. Then they measure support among the likely, "I try to vote, if I can, I will" kind. Then among the possible, "maybe, I'm not sure," and on and on. Based on the answers they get to the questions asked, they can put together models that can predict election results if the turnout is 17 percent, or 22 percent, or 31 percent. The only remaining question is who decides to show up. When campaign analysts wring their hands over the weather on Election Day, it is not superstition, it really can change the outcome of a close race.

Of course, none of that matters in a special election, because the turnout is easily predictable. If past elections are any indicator, it will be low. Historically, turnout is highest for general elections in a Presidential election year, next would be general elections in off years (no Presidential contest). On down would be local general elections, then party primaries, and at the very bottom would be a special election to fill a local office. Only the most interested, the most involved, the most dedicated, civic-minded individuals tend to show up to vote.

The two city council special elections are both the result of a council member getting elected to higher office. The contests come at a time when the city faces a number of crises; they also come just a few short months before the next scheduled primary election for all city council members. For both these reasons, the council races are being watched closely; the results could indicate how these most engaged of all voters feel about things right now, and how they may be feeling next fall.

Although low turnout can be discouraging in a democracy, it does mean the collective decision is among the most well-informed, well-educated choice in any election. And for the candidates, it means they can easily classify the pool of voters they need to reach.


In legislative races, local issues are always important. In special elections, this is especially true. Special elections tend to shine a spotlight on the immediate time and place in which the election happens, regardless of the larger issues that might be facing the city, or the state. Whatever crisis or problem has been facing the district most recently will be foremost in the minds of the voters. This can be a good chance for communities to vent grievances; the danger is that the contest may be decided around a passing crisis, rather than the overall needs of the district.

In the assembly race in the 79th assembly district in the Bronx, the reason for the sudden vacancy may itself be the issue. Assemblymember Gloria Davis confessed to bribery charges, leaving her district with the task of replacing her. Issues of character, ethics, and propriety do not typically dominate a state assembly race, but in the wake of a recent scandal, the character question may be foremost in voters' minds.


There are several steps to a winning campaign strategy, and identifying the voting bloc, and a winning message, are both certainly key. But before you can send out your message to those voters, you have to be sure that voters will have something to stick that message to, namely, your name.

In most campaigns, candidates vastly overestimate the importance of name identification. In the course of a normal campaign, by Election Day, both candidates have high name identification ratings among voters regardless of the results. In a special election, name ID actually can play a role. With less time to campaign and more candidates in the mix, voters can get understandably mixed up as they try to sort out multiple names and slogans.

In the special city council election in Brooklyn, there are six declared candidates; in the Bronx, there are three running for city council, although one has been knocked off the ballot. This means that the candidates who are known to voters -- those who have run before, or held office before -- will have a head start in the process of introducing themselves and making their case.

Name identification may very well be a factor in the 55th state assembly race in Brooklyn. The sitting assembly member, William Boyland, announced his decision to step down not long after being re-elected last fall. His son, William Boyland, Jr., is among the candidates vying to replace him in the special election. The Boyland family name is well known in New York politics; more importantly, it is a name that is familiar to voters in the district. In a special election, having a well-known, well-respected family name can be a distinct advantage.


Although party remains a powerful voting cue in other elections, it plays virtually no role in special elections. Candidates run on specially coined slogans, or banner headings, instead of party labels. The slogans themselves are of little descriptive value, but they do place the burden of choice squarely with the voter, and not with party loyalty.

Special elections are a necessity in order to ensure representation for all city residents during times such as these when interim absences occur. Whatever differentiates them from other elections, they matter a great deal, not only for the ultimate goal of representative democracy, but also for what they can demonstrate to us about the voting process.

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.

Print Friendly and PDF

Editor's Choice

Gotham Gazette: ‘I Actually Have to Negotiate a Budget’: Corey Johnson and the Challenge of Running for Mayor as City Council Speaker
‘I Actually Have to Negotiate a Budget’: Corey Johnson and the Challenge of Running for Mayor as City Council Speaker
Gotham Gazette: Black Business Owners Hang On Through Covid Crisis as Black Lives Matter Movement Surges Black Business Owners Hang On Through Covid Crisis as Black Lives Matter Movement Surges Gotham Gazette: How 2021 Mayoral Candidates Have Responded to the Coronavirus Fallout and Cries for Police Reform How 2021 Mayoral Candidates Have Responded to the Coronavirus Fallout and Cries for Police Reform Gotham Gazette: The Max & Murphy Podcast The Max & Murphy Podcast