This past Election Day, all three statewide incumbents were easily re-elected, the Assembly’s Democratic majority got bigger, but consistent with the overall Republican political tsunami seen across the nation, the Republicans took back control of the state Senate and picked up some New York Congressional seats.
Yet, in one significant way, the election in New York was worse than ever in the state’s modern political history: voter turnout was at a historic low.
Only 30 percent of New Yorkers who were eligible to vote chose to do so in the gubernatorial election. A review of data provided by the U.S. Elections Project shows that that percentage is the lowest since 1980 – the first year that the Project started tracking.
And what makes it worse is that New York ranked 43rd in the nation in turnout!
That’s right, 43rd, ahead of only Indiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah. But behind the rest of the nation, including states like Alabama and Louisiana.
Maine, Minnesota and Wisconsin were the only states with voter turnouts that exceeded 50 percent.
The reasons for this low turnout? When looking across the nation, some states, like New York, lacked competitive gubernatorial races to draw voters to the polls; others had cut polling hours or reduced early voting periods. And, in some states, new voter ID laws could have kept some voters away. Also, the toxic nature of partisan politics in America alienates non-ideological voters – but fires up each political party’s base.
While there is not a lot that can be done to ameliorate the toxic nature of American politics, structural barriers can be overcome. And those structural barriers need to be tackled. There is no other developed democracy in the world that, when it holds an election in which all of the seats in the lower house of the national legislature are on the ballot, has a turnout of less than half of its eligible voters. In the United States, it happens every midterm election. In fact, this past election, two-thirds of the nation’s voting-age population did not vote. Here are two of the structural reasons why:
Obstacle #1: Requiring voter registration.
The United States' voting system is rare among world democracies in that it requires voters to register to vote. In most of the rest of the democratic world, there’s no separate step called registration. It happens automatically. Thus, registering citizens to vote is the responsibility of the government. The voter just has to show up.
In the United States, the responsibility is on the citizen to get registered.
While many U.S. jurisdictions are making it easier to, for example, register to vote while getting a driver’s license or even offering “same-day registration” (which Minnesota permits) many Americans don’t live in these places.
In New York State, voters are typically required to register 25 days before an election – well before most voters tune into the election debates.
Obstacle #2: Holding elections on Tuesday.
No other nation does that. Most democracies vote on weekends, or have more than one day to vote, or get a day off work to vote. But in America: Tuesday.
The state of Minnesota, which has the model law on most of these issues, guarantees every citizen time off from their jobs to vote without penalties or reductions in their pay, personal leave or vacation time. Minnesota also has switched to an increasingly common system called “no excuses” absentee voting, where those who want the convenience of voting in advance by mail don’t have to lie and pretend that there was no reasonable way they could get to the polls on the one Tuesday designated as Election Day.
Many jurisdictions are making it easier to, for example, vote by mail. Oregon switched in 2000 to a system of exclusively voting by mail. It had a voter-participation rate of about 80 percent that year.
During his campaign for re-election, Governor Cuomo pledged to repair New York’s weak voter registration and election administration laws. He should model his reforms on the best elections practices found in the nation – and the world.
Here’s hoping that his efforts succeed.
Blair Horner is the Legislative 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.