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Commentary & Opinion

Voting reforms lose on election day

Democrats across the nation took it on the chin on Election Day. Republicans crowed that their successes are an important measure of their gathering political strength. And Republicans had much to crow about – they took the governor’s race in Virginia and nearly knocked out New Jersey’s incumbent Democratic governor.

Here in New York, Republicans strengthened their hold in Suffolk County, took both Nassau and Suffolk District Attorney offices and appear to have beaten the Democrat Nassau County Executive. Three of five state constitutional amendments that were on the ballot all went down to defeat – by nearly identical margins – as the Republican and Conservative parties worked hard to block measures that had been overwhelmingly approved by the Democratic Party-dominated state Senate and Assembly.

It wasn’t a statewide sweep – Democrats cruised to victory in New York City, Buffalo, and Westchester, but the election returns in New York clearly showed a stronger Republican Party.

The Republican victories in New York came at the same time as voting data showed a growing enrollment advantage for Democrats. According to the New York State Board of Elections report that came out just before the election, half of all voters are enrolled as Democrats and those who chose not to enroll in a political party outnumber Republicans. Democrats now have a better than 2-1 enrollment advantage in the state.

So, how did a state so dominated by Democrats lose so many races?

One thing’s for sure, the voter turnout was very low – and it looks like New York was part of a national trend in which Democratic voters stayed home. Democratic turnout was low in New York strongholds like New York City where not quite 20 percent of enrolled voters cast their ballots. Why? The race for Mayor looked like a lock (and it was) and NYC Council races also appeared to have little drama (mostly). Democrats may have believed that simply being the party opposed to Donald Trump would be enough to motivate voters. But the Trump hangover may have hurt Democrats more than Republicans.

In terms of the ballot questions, a well-organized effort by the Republican and Conservative parties solidly won the day. In only four of the New York City boroughs, and in Tompkins and Westchester counties, did a majority vote for the three elections ballot questions. And in every other county the margin of defeat was incredibly similar.

Yet the three questions were vastly dissimilar. One dealt with changes to redistricting; one eliminated the state constitutional voter registration deadline; and the third made permanent the ability of voters to obtain mail-in absentee ballots. Currently, New Yorkers can get mail-in absentee ballots upon request, but when the pandemic ends, that will not be the case. Voters will once again have to have an excuse in order to obtain that mail-in ballot.

Those three questions were obviously different, yet the Republican and Conservative parties know that in a state that is trending bluer all the time, allowing easier registration and voting opportunities, plus changing the state’s bipartisan redistricting process, will likely help Democrats.

What was most bizarre about the ballot question failures was how little Democrats did to support their own measures. All three were approved with overwhelming Democratic support, yet when it came to encouraging voter support, the Democratic establishment decided to sit it out.

Of course, they won’t admit to that. Instead, Democrats are pointing to a national red tide that swept away their candidates. But that analysis ignores what happened on the three ballot questions.

The “mother’s milk” of political campaigns is money. You can tell how the political parties view races based on how they spend their money. On the three ballot questions, Republican Party leaders held dozens of news events urging New Yorkers to vote no. The Conservative Party spent a reported $3 million on TV ads and other campaign materials to bury the three proposals.

How much did the state Democratic Party spend on those questions? According to media reports, zero dollars. And that zero-dollar amount was matched by the Assembly Democrats. Senate Democrats kicked in about $300,000, but that was clearly inadequate.

Why did the Democratic Party decide to sit out the ballot votes? Maybe they thought that those questions would pass without much fuss. Maybe they really didn’t care – after all, they run the state now, how can changing the system they’ve successfully used make it better for them?

But they clearly miscalculated. Republicans now have the wind to their backs and feel more confident going into the 2022 election cycle. Of course November 2022 is a long way off, but the Republican triumphs in 2021 have sent a clear signal that their ideas, strategies, and organizing will give the dominant Democratic Party a run for its money next year.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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