Get Out What Vote?

It is mind-boggling that winning candidates regularly assume office with mandates that are hardly representative of the diverse makeup of the city's population. Leaders cannot govern effectively with the support of such a paltry slice of the electorate.
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The process of voting in New York City is uninviting, cumbersome, and riddled with landmines that can discourage even the most conscientious citizens from exercising their fundamental democratic right. Recent elections have demonstrated just how disturbing the downward trend in turnout has become, especially when juxtaposed with the ever-increasing population of the City.

The 2009 NYC general election generated the lowest turnout for a mayoral race since 1969, with only 18.4 percent of voting-age residents casting a ballot for mayor, according to an NYC Campaign Finance Board report. Even in national elections, which typically garner higher voter participation, New York State ranks 44th out of the 50 states. In the November 2010 federal midterm and New York State election, turnout in the city was 28 percent while the rest of the State experienced turnout of 53 percent. Evidently, while New York as a whole has an abysmal turnout rate, the city is markedly worse.

New York City is the epicenter of finance, and its elected officials hold sway over a $70 billion budget, $140 billion pension fund, and decisions that impact the entire nation. It is mind-boggling that winning candidates regularly assume office with mandates that are hardly representative of the diverse makeup of the city's population. Leaders cannot govern effectively with the support of such a paltry slice of the electorate. Leaders cannot address the concerns, interests, and aspirations of population if the voices of the electorate go unheard at the ballot box.

Many critics are quick to blame this dynamic on an apathetic electorate that couldn't care less about its government and elected officials. However, this simplistic and short-sighted characterization belies the obvious fact that voting processes in New York are fraught with potholes and barriers. These obstructions are, at their best, laughably outdated and, at their worst, calculated impediments designed to drive down turnout. Further addressing these obstruction issues in other locals has had such obvious success to suggest that apathy is the cause ignores the facts.

Whether you are a first-time or long-time voter, the approach of Primary Day may have triggered you to ask the question: Why do we vote on Tuesdays? The answer harks back to the 1840s, when Congress recognized that farmers needed three days to vote due to the necessity of long journeys to county seats by horse and buggy. Tuesday was the only day that provided enough travel time without interfering with days of worship.

The persistence of this strange tradition in a modern, urban society was enough to inspire the formation of a non-profit, aptly named "Why Tuesday?," which advocates for reforms aimed at increasing voter turnout. A national discussion of these and other options is long overdue, including a move toward weekend-long elections that allow for members of various faiths to vote over a three-day period without violating their religious beliefs.

In an era where Americans of all stripes and backgrounds are struggling to raise children, provide for their families, and find sustainable good-paying jobs, it is ridiculous for voting to pose an undue burden on citizens. Shamefully, New York is not among the 32 states that provide early voting. Similarly, same-day registration is not offered in the Empire State, nor mail in voting, and the election deadlines exclude a slew of would-be voters that are unaware of the stringency in the electoral process.

Despite efforts from some to change this, New York continues to lag behind its peers. As The New York Times pointed out in May, Democrats in the New York State Assembly passed legislation to provide residents with as many as 15 days and two weekends before Election Day to cast their ballots only to be hamstrung by Republicans in the State Senate. Similarly, a bill that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote has been stuck in Senate committee ever since it passed the Assembly. However, even that is more legislative progress than most bills get. Bills that would allow electronic and Election Day voter registration have yet to pass the State Assembly. Even seemingly innocuous proposals like one that would require County Boards of Elections to notify voters when polling stations have changed or another that would transfer the registration of voters that have moved to their current residence, are unlikely to see the light of day. If history is any guide, these bills will face the same fate as so many others that have attempted to climb the 'voting reform mountain' in Albany -- death by Committee.

New York election officials must consider any and all options to reverse the trend of dwindling voter participation in the State. No-excuse absentee-ballot voting is offered in 27 states, which allows citizens the convenience of voting by mail without having to jump through hoops to justify this decision. Several nations have implemented the Internet voting, which affords convenience and public anonymity to their citizens. These sorts of proposals are absolutely imperative to raising turnout and yet the general public is completely unaware of their existence.

With our own Primary Election Day just around the corner it is necessary that we engage in an open and honest discussion of the various ways to increase voter turnout and create a body of elected officials that better represents the entire population, not just the fraction of it that votes now. All options must be on the table if we are finally going to get serious about fixing our voting system. As independent spending continues to infect political discourse, it is our democratic obligation to encourage civic participation across the board.

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