Voters in New York City don't vote very much (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)
New York has, in recent years, become known for low voter turnout, and while the arithmetic of getting voters to the polls has always been foggy, new findings shed light on both the details of the city's turnout problem and factors that impact which potential voters actually cast a ballot.
Late last week, the New York City Campaign Finance Board released its latest Voter Analysis Report, an annual review of voting behavior in New York City in the previous election cycle, providing a comprehensive glimpse of the off-year 2019 elections. But this year the report also includes a ten-year, longitudinal study of millions of individual voters, the places with the best and worst electoral engagement, and the factors that have influenced voter participation.
"This is the agency’s most comprehensive look at voting behavior in New York to date," the report declares.
The study analyzed the voting patterns of over 4.6 million New Yorkers between 2008 and 2018 to score turnout based on a person's eligibility to vote in an election compared with the number of times they exercised that right. A shocking 21 percent of registered voters did not cast a ballot for the entire decade. Only 3 percent of voters voted every time they could.
The study also identified a number of variables that correlate to turnout. Analysis of the data shows a trend toward lower turnout in areas with a high proportion of voters without party affiliation. The proportion of naturalized citizens had a relatively strong negative correlation with a district's voting. Conversely, the percent of the population over 50 and the percent with a high school diploma had a strong positive correlation on turnout.
The report aggregated individual participation scores to find how well each borough fared. It found the Bronx had the lowest participation of any borough with a score of 24 out of 100, while Manhattan had the highest score of 34. Brooklyn and Queens each scored 28 and Staten Island scored 29 (the citywide score was 28).
Plenty of Registered Voters, Not That Many Voters
Reformers seeking to improve voter engagement have long-considered registration and participation the two essential components of the turnout puzzle. The new study suggests that registration efforts alone do little to ensure consistent voting.
"People often talk about how we have a registration problem in New York, but what we've found is that people are registered to vote. They are just not turning out to vote," said Allie Swatek, the the Campaign Finance Board's director of policy and research, in an interview. "The participation score captures that problem: how often people turn out to vote in elections that they are eligible to vote in."
The analysis is unique, she said, because it takes the long view of behavioral information that is not typically available at the local level. (The CFB has published the data used for the study on the city's Open Data portal.)
In 2008, New York City was home to 4.6 million registered voters (including 3.1 million Democrats, 530,000 Republicans, and 827,000 party-unaffiliated voters). As of February 2020, there were over 5.3 million registered voters in the city, with the number of Democrats hitting 3.6 million, Republicans hovering at the 2008 level, and just under 1 million unaffiliated voters (999,000), often called “independents.”
In the 2018 gubernatorial race, the most recent major executive office to be voted on in the city, roughly 2.1 million New York City residents voted, a sharp jump from the 1.2 million who voted in the 2017 mayoral general election. Meanwhile, 2.7 million New York City voters cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election.
Demographics and Turnout
The report, which aggregated individual voting data within census tracts, also used statistical modeling to determine which demographic factors correlated to better or worse participation.
The factor with the strongest negative "impact on voting behavior" in a region was the percent of residents with no party affiliation. Areas with larger proportions of residents aged 50 and older and areas with a high percentage of high school graduates tended to have high levels of voter turnout.
Other factors like the percent of the population of particular racial groups impacted the likelihood to vote, according to the report. The percent of the population that is Latino had a slightly negative correlation with voting, while the percent of the population that is Asian or white had a strong positive correlation. The percent of a population that is black was not strongly correlated with turnout.
"This indicates that Black voters turn out in roughly the same numbers as White residents in New York City and so do not contribute significantly to our model," the report states.
The percentage of a population that is naturalized citizens was among the factors with the strongest negative correlations to voting.
“This analysis shows that the City and State need to do a better job at prioritizing outreach in immigrant communities, where many are first-time voters learning how to participate in the process,” said Javier H. Valdés, co-Executive Director of Make the Road New York, an immigrant advocacy group. “As we continue to work toward reforms that expand democracy in the city and the state, our communities need real resources for outreach and voter education to raise both registration and turnout rates to levels that will ensure full and equal representation.”
An analysis accompanying the report also found a significant overlap between the districts with the highest COVID-19 infection rates and the lowest turnout in 2019. The figures showed that four of the five districts with the highest rate of positive coronavirus testing also had below average voter turnout for the general election last fall. All four of those districts had high numbers of naturalized citizens and relatively low education attainment.
The Voter Analysis Report includes a snapshot of the 2019 election, which had very few high-profile races and predictably saw low turnout. The turnout, a low 17 percent, compared with 39 percent the previous year (2018), came as little surprise to seasoned observers of New York City and State elections, despite the presence of new, long-sought reforms.
For the first time, New Yorkers statewide had the opportunity to vote early for nine days leading up to the November Election Day. In New York City, elections administrators established 61 early voting poll sites across the five boroughs. The new system, passed by the State Legislature and Governor Cuomo in 2019 after Democrats took control of both legislative chambers, is intended to ease the burden of voting by providing more options to voters and more opportunities to trouble-shoot snafus to election administrators.
Not many New Yorkers took advantage of early voting in its first year, a scenario expected and welcomed by reformers who wanted to see the dramatic changes implemented first during an election that promised lower stakes and a lighter load for administrators. Citywide, only 1.3 percent of registered voters voted early, compared with the marginally higher 1.9 percent statewide, according to the CFB.
"While early voters represented a small percentage of the total registered voting population, about 7.6 percent of actual voters chose to vote early, indicating it was possibly a popular method for those who were likely already planning to vote," the report reads.
"Changes to voting behavior take time. Without public education and clear messaging about how to access civil rights, there is a very real risk of public confusion and mistrust over changes to the rules of the road," wrote Jarret Berg, a voting rights attorney and founder of Vote Early NY, in an email to Gotham Gazette. He says it is too early to draw firm conclusions about the merits of early voting in New York City, particularly as the program continues to evolve and the number of poll site options expands.
“Early voting was widely successful in New York this November," wrote Sarah Goff, Deputy Director of Common Cause NY, a good government group that helped fight for its passage. "There were fewer lines on Election Day, and if there were any hiccups, there was ample time for the Boards of Elections to address the issues. Now more than ever, voters need options so they can vote safely. New York lawmakers must continue to adequately fund early voting so New Yorkers can vote on their own schedules.”
"We certainly shouldn't lose sight of that now, especially as early voting will prove to be one of the most important tools we have to reducing density and long lines during the pandemic," Berg added.
While reporting low participation in the first year of early voting, the CFB thinks the program should be expanded. The report recommends enhancing early voting in the city by adding additional sites, creating cluster sites for larger catchment areas, and siting polling places near public transit.
Recent and Desired Reforms to Spur Participation
For nearly two decades, government watchdogs have lamented New York's declining voter participation, blaming it in large part for the political entrenchment they say has enabled corruption and shut out sunlight across city and state governments.
New York in recent years has consistently ranked among the bottom ten states in voter turnout. After corruption charges took down some of the state's most powerful leaders and 2018's "blue wave" -- with historically high turnout in the first midterm elections of the Trump era -- gave Democrats full control of the Legislature and Executive Chamber, state lawmakers enacted a number of reforms aimed at improving access to the ballot box. The 2019 election cycle had few competitive contests drawing people to the polls, but it did offer New Yorkers that first taste of the state's new voting paradigm, which includes an early voting period and synchronized state and federal primaries, while pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds also went into effect.
The new Campaign Finance Board Voter Analysis Report contains a number of recommendations to improve access to the polls, many of which were left on the table after last year's historic spate of reforms. Among them are automatically re-enfranchising people on parole, enacting automatic and online voter registration, and passing a State Constitutional amendment authorizing election-day voter registration and no-excuse absentee voting.
At the city level, the Campaign Finance Board is pushing for a robust public education campaign around ranked-choice voting, which New Yorkers adopted in a referendum last November to go into effect in 2021 for special and primary elections. It also suggests increasing the number of language interpreters at the polls, a perennial goal of reformers and some elected officials.