Gotham Gazette Tue, 18 Jun 2019 23:35:31 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Small Number of Votes Likely to Carry Harlem Special Election nyc boe photo voting machines cropped

photo: NYC Board of Elections

When City Council Member Rafael Salamanca Jr., a Bronx Democrat, was elected in a special held on February 23 last year, only 3,764 ballots were cast and he received 1,455 of them. There were five other candidates in the race.

In 2013, almost exactly four years ago, Donovan Richards was elected to represent Queens’ 31st Council District. Eight candidates ran and 9,147 people voted. Richards received 2,646 votes, closely beating out Pesach Osina who got 2,567 votes.

Special elections for City Council are fairly rare, almost always low-turnout, and much more important than people may realize. Not only do specials, like any election, change the course of the candidates lives and careers, but they determine local representation for district residents and larger policy contributions that winners may make to the city.

In just a few days -- on February 14 -- nearly a dozen candidates will be on the ballot for a special City Council election in Harlem to replace former Council Member Inez Dickens, who was elected to the state Assembly in November. But the especially large slate of candidates is unlikely to mean there will be strong voter turnout. Special elections tend to draw far fewer people to the polls than regularly-scheduled primary and general elections, which themselves typically host unimpressive turnout in New York.

“It’s twice as hard, if not more, to get people to vote in a special election,” said Steven Romalewski, director of the Center for Urban Research’s mapping service at CUNY Graduate Center. “People aren’t used to voting in February.”

“The challenge with a special election,” said Romalewski, “is that not only do candidates and supporters need to make the case for why people should vote for them, but they also have to cross the threshold of getting people to know that there is an election. During the general, you don’t have that issue.”

Special elections in New York City are nonpartisan, meaning that there are no party primaries and candidates do not run on the typical party ballot lines. Instead, they create their own party name and can appear on the ballot if they collect the requisite number of valid petition signatures from district residents.

Including those that elected Council Members Salamanca and Richards, there have been six City Council special elections between 2010 and 2016. Although each was held in different circumstances, and there’s no easy apples-to-apples comparisons to be made, some factors do hold true. For instance, specials scheduled the same day as the general election see higher turnout, in part because of increased awareness among voters and votes cast down party lines.

Voters have the “ingrained” habit of going to the polls in November during general elections, Romalewski noted, and if a special is held the same day, people may cast votes along party lines. Then even an unopposed candidate could receive a substantial number of votes that are mostly unavailable during a special election held in, say, February.

As of April 1, City Council District 9 -- the Harlem seat home to this month’s special election -- had 96,797 active registered voters, according to the New York City Board of Elections. This includes 79,482 Democrats, 3,108 Republicans and 11,241 unaffiliated voters.

In the September 2013 Democratic primary election for the seat, 18,412 votes were cast, 12,878 of which were for Inez Dickens, who was running for re-election and had only one opponent. In the general, Dickens ran unopposed, but received 23,454 out of 28,647 votes cast.

This next vote for the Council member from District 9 will not be on primary or general election day, though. It will be February 14, and turnout could be exceedingly low. With eleven candidates on the ballot, a winner may prevail with fewer than 2,000 votes, if that. The candidates are State Senator Bill Perkins; Marvin Holland; Charles Cooper; Donald Fields; Pierre Gooding; Athena Moore; Todd Stevens; Larry Blackmon; Cordell Cleare; Caprice Alves; and Dawn Simmons.

Aside from the eleven who did make it, two other candidates were kicked off the ballot by the Board of Elections on Tuesday, one for having submitted ballot petitions past the deadline and another for attempting to run on the Democratic Party line in a nonpartisan election.

Two recent “special” elections, in Staten Island’s District 51 and Queens District 23, were held on November 3, 2015, the day of the general election, to fill vacancies created from the separate resignations of two City Council members. Owing to technicalities in election law, based on the timing of the vacancies the District 51 race was considered a special election and the other was an “off-year” election, which involves different rules.

In the Staten Island race, there were 13,002 votes in total, of which 9,111 went to now-Council Member Joe Borelli, a Republican Assembly member at the time. (Borelli was on the ballot again in 2016, running in an “off-year” election for the last year of the term.) The Queens “off-year” election, on the other hand, involved a party primary in September 2015, in which Barry Grodenchik won the Democratic nomination with 1,942 votes out of the total 7,196. On November 3, he received 6,156 votes out of 11,305 cast, beating his Republican opponent by 2,000 votes.

Similarly, in 2012, Andy King was elected to the City Council from District 12 in the Bronx, in another special election held with the general election. King received 35,580 votes out of 58,505 votes cast in the nonpartisan race. He had five competitors.

Two special elections held in 2010 also bear the same pattern -- much higher turnout when held in conjunction with the general election. When Brooklyn’s David Greenfield was elected to the District 44 seat in March of that year, he received 7,242 votes of the 12,762 cast. Later in November, on general election day, when Ruben Wills ran for District 28 in Queens, he received 6,145 votes but 22,428 people voted.

By law, the mayor must call for a special election within three days of a vacancy occurring and the election must take place on the first Tuesday at least 45 days after the vacancy. This helps avoid prolonged periods without community representation, but leads to specials on seemingly random Tuesdays.

“In November, most voters know about the election.” said political consultant Jerry Skurnik, co-founder of Prime New York. In specials held during the rest of the year, he said, candidates have two necessary tasks to perform. “You’ve got to convince people to vote and then convince people to vote for you,” he said.

Skurnik did point out that the range of turnout in special elections is usually between 10 to 15 percent, trending towards the lower end, implying that there is a dedicated base of voters that will cast a ballot regardless of the timing of the election or even the weather on the particular day. The difference, though, comes down to the race and the candidates. “It’s driven largely by how competitive it is and how active candidates are,” Skurnik said.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Small Number of Votes Likely to Carry Harlem Special Election Thu, 02 Feb 2017 05:00:00 +0000
New York Primaries are Closed, Repetitive and Costly cuomo voting 2015 machine

Gov. Cuomo votes in 2015 (photo via Governor's Office)

In April, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump won the Democratic and Republican New York presidential primaries, respectively. New York has a well-publicized and worsening voter turnout problem, and approximately one in four registered New York voters could have no say in the presidential primary outcomes even if they wanted to - other than by changing their party affiliation more than a year prior.

New York is one of only nine states in the country, as of 2016, in which both major parties run closed primaries, meaning that voting in the Democratic primary is only open to registered Democrats and voting in the Republican primary is only open to registered Republicans. Closed party primaries are closed to unaffiliated registered voters - often referred to as independents - and to voters registered with smaller parties like the Green Party.

According to the New York State Board of Elections, as of April 1 there are 11,726,842 registered voters in New York (this figure includes both active and inactive voters). Of those voters, 2,485,475 are unaffiliated with a party, and 717,182 are registered with parties outside the two major political parties (Conservative, Green, Libertarian, Working Families, Independence, etc. - people regularly register with the Independence Party incorrectly thinking they are registering as “independent,” or unaffiliated). There are almost as many unaffiliated registered voters in New York as there are registered Republicans (2.7 million). There are 5.8 million registered Democrats across the state.

Despite not being allowed to vote in party primary elections, unaffiliated voters, along with registered Democrats and Republicans and “third party” voters, foot the bill for the administration of those elections. In New York, the cost of a primary election in 2016 is $25 million, which amounts to the fourth most expensive primary election in the country, and this cost to taxpayers is not limited to presidential primaries; New York Congressional primaries and local and state legislative primaries cost $25 million each. In 2016, New York is holding three different primary days (presidential in April, congressional in June, and state/local in September).

New York’s closed primary system and the costs associated with it - both monetary and democratic - have resulted in calls for change.

New York State Assemblymember Michael Cusick, a Democrat who represents part of Staten Island, introduced legislation earlier this year that would consolidate all non-presidential primaries to a single election day (Assembly bill A09108). Currently, U.S. Congressional primaries and state and local primaries are held on two separate days, costing the state $50 million, about half of which could be saved by consolidating. In February, the Democrat-controlled Assembly passed the bill, which would move all non-presidential primaries to the fourth Tuesday in June, the current date of congressional primaries. In the Republican-led state Senate, however, the bill was not taken up.

Some state senators are hesitant to support legislation that would require them to prepare for an election while they are still working in the capital - the state legislative session runs from January to mid-June. Currently, senators and Assembly members have the summer of election years to prepare for their September primaries as needed (state legislators serve two-year terms).

A bill almost identical to Assemblymember Cusick’s was introduced to the state Senate by Republican Sen. Fred Ashkar, who represents the Binghamton area (Senate bill S6604). But, Ashkar’s bill would assign the third Tuesday in August as the singular election day for all non-presidential New York primary elections rather than the fourth Tuesday in June. The bill, introduced in January and passed by the Senate in March, would still save taxpayers money by consolidating election days but because it calls for an August election day, it would allow state legislators to avoid the conflict between working and campaigning. Yet, Ashkar’s bill has no chance in the Assembly because Democrats see it as an effort to suppress the vote, given the late August date, when people are even less likely than usual to be paying attention to politics or in town to vote.

While either consolidation of the congressional and state/local primaries would save taxpayers money, without opening up the primaries voters registered as unaffiliated would remain unable to vote until the November general elections.

Assemblymember Fred Thiele of Long Island is unaffiliated with a political party. Thiele introduced legislation (Assembly bill A9661) in March that would allow unaffiliated voters to vote in primary elections. Many voters were hoping that the bill would be passed in time for this year’s presidential primary; however, election day came and went as the bill sat in committee.

This year’s presidential primaries were notably frustrating for many New York voters. While unaffiliated New York voters are ordinarily unable to vote in their state’s closed party primaries, thousands of voters found themselves unable to vote despite having registered in one of the two major parties. With one day remaining before the April 19 primaries, voter advocacy group Election Justice USA filed a lawsuit in New York federal court on behalf of thousands of voters.

According to Election Justice USA, the lawsuit represented both voters whose party affiliation had been inexplicably changed to unaffiliated and voters who had been left off of voter rolls.The group’s goal was to secure an emergency declaratory judgement, which would open New York’s Democratic primary to voters registered as unaffiliated and Republican. The judgement was deferred and the primary remained closed.

Jerry Skurnik, partner at Prime New York, a consultancy, specializes in providing political candidates with demographic information on New York voters. He believes that open elections have benefits for less partisan candidates.

“Most of the talk this year had to do with the presidential primary, and it was sort of an exception in that a lot of young people who were unaffiliated were vehemently for [Bernie] Sanders, but I think in general, [open primaries] would probably help more moderate candidates and less partisan Democrats,” Skurnik said in a phone interview with Gotham Gazette.

While less strict partisanship might be one potential benefit of opening primary elections, Skurnik also points out that there is a question of fairness that should be considered when discussing open primaries.

“[A closed primary] allows people who are supporters of the Democratic or Republican party to pick the candidates. It doesn’t allow people who really aren’t loyal or committed Democrats or Republicans to have a say in who’s going to be the party nominee. There’s an argument -- why should someone who votes for Democrats for office 25 percent of the time have any say in picking a Democratic candidate?”

This question of fairness is not limited to the role of unaffiliated voters in the Democratic and Republican primaries. While much smaller than the Democratic and Republican parties, third parties have active registered voters, and opening presidential primaries to allow any voter to vote in any primary regardless of party affiliation could be detrimental to these minor parties.

Minor parties, according are Skurnik, “are really ideological parties.”

“They stand for something, so why should the conservative who’s unaffiliated have a right to vote in the primary for the Green Party -- someone who’s in favor of fracking. Because they’re unaffiliated, should they be allowed to vote in the Green Party or vice versa? Should someone who’s pro-choice, should they be allowed to help pick the Conservative Party candidate because they’re unaffiliated?”

While they tend to be actively engaged in politics, voters registered with minor parties don’t make up a large portion of the electorate in New York. For example, there are 50,000 voters registered with the Working Families Party across New York according to Skurnik, and while unaffiliated New York voters are more numerous than “third party” voters, their political tendencies are more difficult to determine. However, there is one observable pattern shared among unaffiliated voters.

“We may not know where [unaffiliated voters] lean politically, but we do know they vote less often than people who registered in a party,” Skurnik said. “A higher percentage of Democrats and a higher percentage of Republicans and even a higher percentage of minor party registrants vote in general elections than unaffiliated voters. So a larger proportion of unaffiliated voters are less active, more apathetic.”

Across the country, 43 percent of all registered voters are registered as unaffiliated. According to Open Primaries, an advocacy group that advocates for the establishment of open primaries in all 50 states, there are approximately 26 million registered voters closed out of voting in major party primary elections across the country. Currently, there are 14 states in which both major parties run open presidential primaries.

The total cost of running elections in all closed primary states is $300 million. This figure only includes closed primaries run by the state -- caucuses, while also exclusionary to unaffiliated voters, do not cost taxpayers anything in the states in which they are held. This is because caucuses are paid for by the parties themselves. Some question why states pay for and implement closed primary elections at all given that they are controlled by the parties. (For the recent presidential primaries in New York, Democratic voters voted not just for a nominee, but also for delegates to the party convention; Republicans voted only for a nominee, their New York delegates to the RNC are chosen at a party meeting.)

One alternative to the closed primary system is the system employed by California for its presidential primary elections, which is something of a hybrid. In California, parties can choose between running a closed primary or a modified closed primary in which the party can choose to allow “no party preference” (NPP) voters, otherwise known as independent or unaffiliated voters, to vote in their primaries. In this year’s California presidential primary held on June 7, the Republican Party chose to run a closed primary, excluding NPP voters and allowing only registered Republicans to vote. The Democratic Party chose to run a modified closed primary, allowing both registered Democrats and NPP voters to vote in the Democratic primary.

California not only runs a modified closed presidential primary, but it also joins Washington and Nebraska in running a “top two” open primary system for all non-presidential primary elections. In the “top two” system, all qualified candidates are listed on the ballot; all voters, irrespective of party affiliation, can vote for whichever candidate they prefer; and the top two vote-getters, irrespective of party affiliation, move on to the general election. This system often results in two candidates of the same party opposing each other in the general election.

This system is also known as a nonpartisan primary, and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg - a Democrat turned Republican turned independent - once unsuccessfully advocated for its establishment in New York during his mayoral tenure. In New York City, Democrats hold an even more stark registration advantage than across the state: there are just over 3 million registered Democrats in New York City and just about 460,000 registered Republicans. Meanwhile, there are more than 785,700 registered New York City voters not affiliated with a party.

While Bloomberg’s efforts failed in 2003, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, recently supported the implementation of nonpartisan primaries in a 2014 New York Times op-ed.

Within the op-ed, Senator Schumer not only called for nonpartisan primaries in New York, but for nonpartisan primaries all across the United States.

“We need a national movement to adopt the “top-two” primary (also known as an open primary), in which all voters, regardless of party registration, can vote and the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, then enter a runoff,” Schumer wrote. “This would prevent a hard-right or hard-left candidate from gaining office with the support of just a sliver of the voters of the vastly diminished primary electorate; to finish in the top two, candidates from either party would have to reach out to the broad middle.”

by Libby Wetzler for Gotham Gazette

New York Primaries are Closed, Repetitive and Costly Thu, 14 Jul 2016 04:00:00 +0000