It took four hours until anyone — expert witnesses, charter commission members, or one of the evening’s 21 informal speakers — finally zeroed in on why voter participation has plummeted in NYC over the last two decades:
“Maybe the reason why people don’t vote is they don’t think it’s worth the trouble of going to vote for a government that increasingly shuts them out.”
The speaker was Father Richard Gorman, chairman of Community Board 12 in The Bronx. Unfortunately, by the time he spoke, at 10:05 PM, the panelists, half the commissioners, and almost all the main-stream press, had deserted the Lehman College auditorium. The few audience members who lingered were mayoral aides or one-issue advocates for non-partisan elections.
The commission’s five invited experts presented a predictable array of ideas to boost voter turn-out: Jerry Goldfeder and Lorraine Minnite suggested moving primary elections to June, when voters won’t be distracted by the new school year or religious holidays, or even holding them on weekends; granting automatic ballot access to those who qualify for matching funds; making run-off elections “instant;” allowing “early voting;” and enabling same-day and expanded agency-based (e.g., DMV) voter registration.
In a pre-emptive strike against the evening’s main event, Community Service Society CEO David Jones argued that non-partisan elections and the elimination of party primaries would erode the gains that minorities have achieved through the Democratic Party. Harry Kresky of the Independence Party rebutted him. Phil Thompson bemoaned the exclusion of non-citizens from the election process. Jones noted that the incarcerated were similarly excluded.
But all this was about process and circumstances, not voter motivation. Only commission member Anthony Perez Cassino approached the central issue: voter apathy. Bemoaning an abysmal 11% voter turnout in the 2009 Democratic primaries, Cassino said of voters: “they didn’t think the City Council was relevant to their lives. They didn’t think the borough presidents were relevant to their lives”
None of the commission members suggested that the mayor who had appointed them had helped to suppress turn-out by provoking voter anger and apathy when he collaborated with the City Council in 2008 to overthrow term limits. And none articulated the problem that Cassino implied and Father Gorman later identified: that with a one-man government, going to the polls enables voters to choose who will rule and who will follow, but not what the rules will be.
Shortly before Father Gorman spoke, Roxanne Delgado, who said she was representing only herself, identified another credible reason for voter apathy: wide-spread corruption among elected officials. She reserved special attention for Council Speaker Christine Quinn, whom she criticized for “giving herself a 25% raise” and a “lifetime pension,” as well as for her “slush fund.” Whatever the merits of Delgado’s specific criticisms, her focus on “corruption” probably resonated with many voters.
It resonated with us, as did Father Gorman’s remarks. Citing the 1989 charter’s elimination of the power-sharing Board of Estimate, the Bronx community board leader said:
“A lot of power went to the mayor, creating a very powerful central executive. That’s a problem when you have an executive who’s very powerful and an executive who’s not willing to accept any limitations on that power and not willing to listen to others.”
Then, recalling Rudolph Giuliani’s dismissal of decentralization recommendations that had been made by a Dinkins Administration task force on service delivery, Gorman called for this year’s commission to strengthen the ability of borough presidents and community boards to prioritize local services.
Without the ability to influence government, Gorman suggested, people won’t bother to come out to vote. “If you want people to participate in government, make it worthwhile for them to do something.”
Sound advice from a man of the cloth and a man of the people.