Gotham Gazette

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How Many Voters Will Turn Out for the Public Advocate Special Election?

de blasio voting

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Around 200,000 to 700,000 voters are expected to show up to the polls for February 26 special election for New York City Public Advocate, according to political experts and candidates for the office. Though the election is certain to be a low turnout affair, just how low remains unclear, with turnout dependent upon how well the candidates are able to broadcast their messages and push people to the polls, how active labor unions and political clubs are, and other factors, including the weather on election day.

The election for just one of three citywide positions asks voters to choose between more than a dozen candidates vying to become the city’s next ombudsperson, voice for the people, and watchdog over the rest of city government. Former public advocate Letitia James, who served in the role from 2014 through 2018, was elected Attorney General in November, triggering the first citywide special election since governmental restructuring in 1989.

As of February, there were almost 5.2 million registered voters in New York City, according to the state Board of Elections. Of that total, about 3.5 million are registered Democrats; 954,000 registered to vote but unaffiliated with a party; and 523,000 Republicans.

A turnout of 500,000 voters for the Public Advocate special election would represent just over 10 percent of those 5.2 million registered voters.

Several experts view weather as the strongest deciding factor in turnout.

If the skies are clear, as many as 750,000 voters may head to the polls, according to Jerry Skurnik, a political consultant and founder of Prime New York. But if snow falls on the twenty-sixth, he estimates that the number could drop to 600,000 voters. Skurnik based his forecasts on turnout for five prior competitive special elections. He defined competitive as “two or more candidates spending real money.”

Other experts are less optimistic about civic engagement. If the unseasonal balminess New York recently experienced holds, turnout could hover around 600,000 voters, according to the projections of Bruce Gyory, a political consultant at Manatt and political science professor at University at Albany. But if the city suffers from another day of “subarctic conditions or a snowstorm or an ice storm,” then Gyory estimates a low end of 300,000 voters.

The last time weather played such a major role in a special election, as Gyory recalled, was the 1978 race for what had been Herman Badillo’s seat in the U.S. Congress representing the 21st District in the South Bronx. “The week before the election there was a big snowstorm,” Gyory said, who was working on eventual winner Robert Garcia’s campaign. “We needed a bigger turnout to win so we were petrified.” Ultimately, more than 14,000 Bronxites voted, securing Garcia’s victory.

In the current public advocate race, City Council Member Rafael Espinal’s campaign is looking to the 2013 public advocate Democratic primary runoff election between James and then-State Senator Daniel Squadron. Espinal, a Brooklyn Democrat, predicted a turnout between 230,000 to 700,000 voters. “I’m also factoring in the fact that we’ve had high turnout in the past primary and general,” Espinal said during a recent candidate forum at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. “New Yorkers are activated, there are people who usually wouldn’t vote in local elections, but because of what’s happening in Washington, are feeling they have a duty.”

Another City Council member and public advocate candidate, Ydanis Rodríguez, estimated on the low end, predicting about 300,000 voters. “We don’t live in a democratic system where we really persuade people to go out and vote,” he lamented at the same event.

Factors including media coverage and individual candidates’ ability to drum up excitement about their campaign will also influence turnout, Gyory said. But in an election with so little attention, small details that may not play into a typical election hold the potential to upend the race.

Since the public advocate race is nonpartisan, meaning not for existing political parties, all the candidates will be on one ballot under self-created party names. As a result, Eric Ulrich may have an advantage as the only Republican elected official in a race with more than a dozen Democrats. And with no runoff, divvying up the city’s Democrats could potentially lead to a Republican victory despite the lopsided GOP enrollment disadvantage. While those party labels will not be on the ballot, each candidate, especially the elected officials, are attempting to secure their base plus as many other votes as possible. Ulrich’s goal is to coalesce as many Republicans and conservative and moderate Democrats as he can.

The Queens Council member, who bills himself as a “Rockefeller Republican” and frequently calls his policies “socially liberal and fiscally conservative,” is hoping to garner support from voters seeking to rebuke de Blasio’s tenure, perhaps leading to a heightened motivation to turn out to vote. “This election is not going to be a referendum on Donald Trump, it’s going to be a referendum on Bill de Blasio,” he said on the Max & Murphy podcast in January.

With so many contenders in the field, some candidates view their path to victory as contingent on strong networks that stretch throughout the five boroughs. Michael Blake, a Bronx state Assembly member, is relying on a coalition of immigrants who identify with him as the son of Jamaican parents, colleagues in state government who have endorsed him, constituents in the Bronx, support from the United African Coalition, and connections from his time working for President Obama, among others.

When asked about his voter turnout prediction at the Newmark School event, he refused to give an answer. “I’m not going to tell my strategy,” said Blake, who is also a political consultant. “I’m not going to say how I think I’m going to win with other candidates here.” When pressed by moderator and Newmark professor Errol Louis of NY1, and even by fellow candidate Melissa Mark-Viverito, to at least name a potential number of voters, he defiantly shook his head.

Political endorsements could swing the vote in the race, not only by potentially determining the winner but also in broadly fostering excitement about the race and encouraging New Yorkers to head to the polls. How active clubs and labor unions and elected officials are in supporting their candidate of choice will influence turnout. How many clubs and unions and electeds sit the race out, making no endorsement, will also have an impact.

Brooklyn City Council Member Jumaane Williams has racked up political endorsements from dozens of state and city politicians, labor unions, political clubs, and progressive organizations. He also benefits from momentum from his 2018 race for lieutenant governor, when he did well in the city, especially in Manhattan and Brooklyn, against incumbent Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, from western New York. In the other boroughs, he still stands to gain from name recognition, and this time he’s not competing against an incumbent, though he is facing a deep group of locally-based officials.

The Working Families Party, which endorsed Williams after also backing him in last year’s primary, believes its base is galvanized and ready to show up to support him again. While they don’t have a voter turnout estimate, organizing director Ava Benezra said they’re sending 400,000 texts to likely voters. The New Kings Democrats are coordinating similar efforts for Williams as election day nears, according to vice president of organizing Sage Rockermann. And he recently won the endorsement of the Kings County Democrats, Brooklyn’s official arm of the Democratic party.

Labor unions hold significant political clout in New York City, but their voter outreach efforts appear to be limited for this election, with some of the city’s largest unions perhaps choosing to sit it out as to not take a chance in an especially hard-to-predict race.

Former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has gained several endorsements from City Council members, Congressional Rep. Adriano Espaillat, a few Latino political organizations, women’s groups, and labor unions.

Teamsters Local 801 endorsed Mark-Viverito for her efforts in helping upgrade sanitation workers’ facilities, especially for women. “I don’t forget people who are good to my workforce,” Local 801 president Harry Nespoli said. He is encouraging his staff to vote for Mark-Viverito and pledged to do “anything we can to help her,” but has not yet engaged in citywide voter turnout efforts.

Meanwhile, one of New York City’s largest and most prominent unions, 1199 SEIU, decided against endorsing a candidate or facilitating voter outreach efforts. This comes as a surprise as Blake frequently notes his father’s membership in 1199SEIU in his stump speech and the union endorsed Blake for Assembly in the past, but at the same time, Mark-Viverito also has strong ties to the union. “There are a number of fierce healthcare advocates running for this important seat,” said president George Gresham. “We are confident that the public will select the best fit for the position.”

Political clubs are endorsing and working on behalf of their selected candidates.

Stonewall Democrats, which endorsed Assemblymember Danny O’Donnell, is “hitting the phones to support him and will continue to do so up until election day,” said club president Rod Townsend. “Having a special election in February is a different kind of animal than we’re used to. We’re hoping that our reach as a large citywide club will spread the word from Riverdale to the Rockaways and everywhere in between.”

While the Lexington Democratic Club is canvassing and phone banking on behalf of Assemblymember Ron Kim, the Grand Street Democrats are also coordinating door-knocking and flyering campaigns to encourage New Yorkers to vote for their endorsed candidate: Benjamin Yee, a civic technologist and political operative.

“With such a large field in this race and very little time to campaign,” said Grand Street Democrats president Jeremy Sherber, “the kind of personal connections clubs like ours can make will have an outsized impact on this special election.” The club does not yet have a turnout estimate, but plans to use past local special elections to gauge voter participation in the Lower East Side.

Some hope that unconventional voter outreach efforts may lead to a surprising spike in voters following the immense boost in the September and November elections in New York. Generator Collective, an online community seeking to “humanize policy through storytelling,” has hosted several events with popular comedian Ilana Glazer – who has also promoted the race on Instagram to her 1 million followers – to inform young about the candidates and encourage them to vote.

The election, open to all registered voters across the five boroughs, is Tuesday, February 26.

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