The Exceptional American Democracy?

This past Tuesday, New Yorkers took to the polls after a hotly contested primary race to determine the two standard-bearers in the upcoming general election. After a high drama campaign, infused with way too much sexual scandal and way too little substance, it was actually little surprise when Public Advocate Bill DeBlasio emerged as the Democrat’s nominee, with former MTA Commissioner Joseph Lhota becoming the Republican candidate. But perhaps of some surprise (or none at all, given historical realities) was the incredibly small percentage of New Yorkers who participated- about 20% of eligible voters (22% of eligible Democrats, and 12% of eligible Republicans).

This was actually an increase in turnout from the 2009 primaries, although it was lower than the 2001 primaries (I’ll give $10 to anyone who can remember who the Democratic nominee was that year, who apparently inspired a greater turnout than DeBlasio).

But this problem was not just isolated to New York City- in local elections that day throughout the state, turnout was abysmal. In Rochester, fewer than 15,000 registered Democrats voted, which was “the lowest turnout in the city’s history for a contested race” according to the country’s Democratic chairman. In Buffalo, less than 14,000 Democrats showed up, in a city of over 261,000 residents, “the lowest in memory.” And it’s not just in this state either. In a hotly contested Los Angeles mayoral run-off, which included significant celebrity activity, only 23% of registered voters showed up. Indeed, research conducted by Political Research Quarterly found that in 340 mayoral elections in 144 large American cities (dating back to 1996), turnout averaged just over 25%. This is a veritable crisis.

Perhaps most problematic is that at this point, we see this as the norm. There was no outrage in New York City at the incredibly low turnout. With DeBlasio now seen as the likely new mayor, stories are not focusing on the fact that he will become the city’s leader after receiving votes from approximately 3% of all of the city’s residents. In fact, the New York Times seemingly mustered more frustration at Moscow’s mayoral election, noting that turnout was extremely low…despite the fact that the city’s 32% turnout made the Big Apple’s pale in comparison.

Now, democracies are about much more than voting. Every day, Generation Citizen tries to teach our students that they must engage with policy makers, raise awareness on important issues, mobilize others, and obtain media coverage. But at the same time, voting should be the lowest baseline of democratic participation. And it’s obviously not happening- especially in local elections where votes matter much more than they do in national races.

The reasons for this are complex and multi-faceted. Our actual voting process is incredibly laborious and technologically weak, given the fact that we’re in 2013. Our voting laws disenfranchise many and treat voting as a privilege, rather than a fundamental right (why do we not have automatic voter registration?). But the solutions must start with our elected officials.

Assuming DeBlasio becomes mayor (and the latest poll has him up by 40 points), he could return to his organizing roots and ensure that he engages citizens in every step of his first term- hosting a series of town hall meetings to get their opinions on everything from our public education system to stop and frisk to public housing. He could focus on modernizing the city’s voting systems (ensuring that next election, we don’t have to wait more than a week to get certified results). He could make citizen engagement a true tenet of his administration’s priorities.

But on top of that, I’m hoping that we start to realize that we cannot call ourselves an exceptional democracy if our turnout in local races is lower than that of Moscow, Russia. The status quo in our democracy is not okay. Let’s get a little upset about it.

– Scott Warren, Executive Director

Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.