City of 8 Million Was a Ghost Town at the Polls

By Sam Roberts
Published October 6th 2009 in New York Times
In the 97th Election District of the 79th Assembly District in the Morrisania section of the Bronx, the polls opened last Tuesday at 6 a.m. They remained open until 9 p.m. Not one of the district’s 58 enrolled Democrats turned out to vote for public advocate or comptroller in two citywide primary runoff races that are considered tantamount to election.

Election workers in the Bronx had a quiet election day on Sept. 29. The low turnout, below 8 percent citywide, is likely to lead to renewed calls for a change in how runoff elections are done.

It was the same story in a Sunnyside, Queens, election district and another in Canarsie, Brooklyn: no votes at all.

According to preliminary returns, in fact, no votes were recorded in scores of the city’s 6,100 election districts. In hundreds more, where the number of enrolled Democrats ranged from 1 to nearly 1,100, fewer than 10 voters turned out to choose the city’s official watchdog and its chief fiscal steward.

For a week, New Yorkers have known that the runoff was a feeble exercise in participatory democracy of historic proportions. Fewer than 8 percent of the city’s roughly three million enrolled Democrats voted in an election that cost the city $15 million and the four candidates millions more.

A closer look at the data is apt to only deepen the public’s appreciation of how the two winning candidates — Bill de Blasio for public advocate and John C. Liu for comptroller — achieved something less than a mandate from the city’s populace. They won with the votes of less than 2 percent of all New Yorkers.

The precise counts in the city’s hundreds of election districts are subject to change as malfunctioning machines are accounted for and lapses by the authorities in promptly and accurately reporting vote totals are corrected. But none of the adjustments will be sufficient to keep the 15 hours of mostly nonvoting on Sept. 29 out of the record books, nor quiet the growing chorus of calls for changing how runoff elections are conducted.

“I would say this is unprecedented, and the low turnout makes a strong case for instant runoff voting,” said John H. Mollenkopf, a historian at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. “Of course, that would probably require us to have modern voting machines.”

The two front-runners in the Sept 15 primary, Mr. de Blasio and Mr. Liu, won with less than 40 percent, the threshold required to avoid a runoff. In the rerun for public advocate on Sept. 29, Mr. de Blasio, a member of the City Council from Brooklyn, defeated Mark Green, the former public advocate, with 138,736, or 63 percent of the vote. Councilman John C. Liu of Queens defeated a fellow councilman, David Yassky of Brooklyn, for comptroller with 127,173, or 56 percent.

Both runoff winners discounted the notion that the low turnout undermined their legitimacy.

Mr. Liu said that he had been campaigning citywide for more than a year and, through a spokeswoman, added: “New Yorkers who came out to vote in the runoff elections were fully engaged on the issues and recognize the important role of the comptroller’s office, especially in these tough economic times.”

Mr. Liu is virtually certain to become the first Asian-American elected to citywide office in the general election next month, and his popularity in Asian neighborhoods helped him collect the needed — if strikingly few — votes he required to win.

The largest turnout of any Assembly district in the city, 19 percent, was in Lower Manhattan, which includes Chinatown, where Mr. Liu won with 69 percent of the vote. In one election district there, turnout was 67 percent, and Mr. Liu won with 81 percent. He carried another nearby district, where turnout was 50 percent, with 94 percent of the vote.

Mr. de Blasio, for his part, did not let the epically modest turnout erode his confidence that he was the people’s choice.

“I spent the past year in communities throughout the city discussing the issues that matter most to New Yorkers,” he said. “Through the enthusiasm for this campaign and through the over 600,000 votes cast in two elections, New Yorkers have made their voices loud and clear that it’s time for change.”

The biggest turnout in that race, probably not surprisingly, was in the 44th Assembly District, Mr. de Blasio’s home base in Brooklyn. Just 18 percent of the district’s registered Democrats voted, but he won 78 percent of those votes.

Staten Island was the borough that had the poorest overall turnout — with just 6 percent of eligible Democratic voters casting a ballot. The highest-performing borough, Manhattan, managed 12 percent.

The area of the city that turned out the lowest percentage of possible voters was the South Bronx. There, Mr. Liu carried the day by rallying to attract all of 782 votes in an Assembly district with more than 31,000 registered Democrats, according to an analysis for The New York Times by Queens College demographers.

The city’s Board of Elections, which runs the city’s voting efforts, met Tuesday, but a spokeswoman said the low turnout was not discussed. The board begins its official canvass of the runoff results Wednesday. It is expected to take two weeks. It is likely that some of the election districts with no votes recorded in the initial tally might, in the end, be discovered to have experienced some voting.

Until last week, the lowest citywide turnout was in 1993, when Assemblyman Alan G. Hevesi of Queens defeated the incumbent, Elizabeth Holtzman, for the Democratic nomination for comptroller. Just over 10 percent of the city’s 2.28 million enrolled turned out in an election with no other races on the ballot.

Mr. Hevesi had 172,484 votes to Ms. Holtzman’s 83,876.

Those numbers, of course, seem faintly majestic when set against last Tuesday’s.

That said, there was at least one bright spot amid all the apathy. The best voter participation rate was recorded in Queens, in the 15th Election District of the 27th Assembly District in Queens: 100 percent.

There, the one enrolled Democrat eligible to vote actually did.

IRV Soars in Twin Cities, FairVote Corrects the Pundits on Meaning of Election Night '09
Election Day '09 was a roller-coaster for election reformers.  Instant runoff voting had a great night in Minnesota, where St. Paul voters chose to implement IRV for its city elections, and Minneapolis voters used IRV for the first time—with local media touting it as a big success. As the Star-Tribune noted in endorsing IRV for St. Paul, Tuesday’s elections give the Twin Cities a chance to show the whole state of Minnesota the benefits of adopting IRV. There were disappointments in Lowell and Pierce County too, but high-profile multi-candidate races in New Jersey and New York keep policymakers focused on ways to reform elections;  the Baltimore Sun and Miami Herald were among many newspapers publishing commentary from FairVote board member and former presidential candidate John Anderson on how IRV can mitigate the problems of plurality elections.

And as pundits try to make hay out of the national implications of Tuesday’s gubernatorial elections, Rob Richie in the Huffington Post concludes that the gubernatorial elections have little bearing on federal elections.