New Yorkers vote (some did anyway)
New Yorkers had the opportunity to cast their ballots in last week’s off-year election. Not surprising that few showed up and, by and large, incumbents won in these local office races. The outcomes of the elections, however, could be an indication of the strength of New York’s major political parties, and could fuel a big change in how elections are conducted.
First, some of the outcomes. Across the state incumbents did well. That doesn’t mean there were not some surprises – like the upset in the Bronx that will send the first Republican representative to the New York City Council in 40 years. The overall political outcomes, however, did not see dramatic changes.
The elections also showed the resurgent strength of the Republican Party on Long Island. Those two counties, Nassau and Suffolk, have a combined population of 2.9 million, with 2.2 million voters. Democrats have enrollment advantages over Republicans in both counties, but a better organized effort by Republicans increased their party’s turnout and capped a three year dramatic shift to Republican control of key elective offices in both counties. Results in other suburban areas have not been as clear cut, so it remains to be seen whether this shift on Long Island foreshadows statewide inroads in the suburban vote by Republicans. Yet, the outcome should be of deep concern to Democrats.
Despite the Long Island threat to Democratic Party dominance in New York, nationally, the party did well in 2023. The national results buoyed the Party as it looks ahead to the Presidential election in 2024. Also at stake in 2024 will be control of the Congress.
Republicans currently have a razor-thin majority in the House of Representatives where their 222 seats is just enough to control that Chamber –218 seats are needed for a majority. The current Republican majority is the result of a strong showing in the 2022 election in New York State. Instead of Democrats capturing an overwhelming number of the 26 Congressional seats in New York, they were only able to win 15. Of the 11 seats taken by Republicans, 5 were squeakers.
Those five seats are in the crosshairs of Democrats going into the 2024 election.
It is expected that at least two of the Long Island Congressional seats will be up for grabs next year. Those two are largely in Nassau County, a place where Democrats have a 100,000 voter enrollment advantage. Yet, over the past few years they lost the county executive seat, lost state senate and assembly seats, and control of important towns – all in a county whose Democratic leader is also the head of the statewide party.
Will the growing strength of Republicans in Nassau County be the determining factor in who controls the House of Representatives in 2025? Quite possibly.
Beyond the post race analysis, this was yet another paltry turnout in the 2023 election. For example, in New York City only 313,000 New Yorkers voted out of a total 4.6 million voters. Even on Long Island where Republican turnout was significantly higher than Democrats’, only about a quarter of voters cast their ballots.
The dismal turnout added fuel to the calls for legislation that has been approved by both houses of the state Legislature and is expected to go to the desk of Governor Hochul. That legislation would shift the majority of local elections from odd-numbered years to even-numbered ones – elections that tend to have a higher turnout since they coincided with national and statewide voting.
The justification for the legislation is obvious – scheduling more elections in even-numbered years would boost voter turnout and have outcomes in which the winners would be chosen by a much larger percentage of the voters. For example, in the 2022 New York races for governor, about 43% of voters showed up. In the 2020 Presidential election, 61% of New York voters did. Compare those rates with the lousy turnout in 2023.
If it is signed by the governor, the new law would be phased in over a period of years. It would apply to offices like county executive and town supervisor, for which elections in many localities are held in odd-numbered years, opposite the presidential and statewide elections. But it would not apply to certain positions like district attorney and city-level elections — which are set by the state Constitution. It also doesn’t apply to villages, which generally hold elections in March.
A recent analysis showed another benefit of the shift: Younger voters and voters of color are more likely to turn out. Of course, shifting local elections to even-numbered years may make it harder for voters to focus on specific races, but it is clear that many more voters would participate.
The governor hasn’t indicated whether she will approve the legislation. If she does approve the plan, many more New Yorkers will be involved in deciding who at the local level represents them.
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.