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Courting voter apathy

Immigrant assimilation cited for low turnout
BY DAMIAN GHIGLIOTTY
Sixteen million dollars went into the November elections, but only 6.1 percent of 3,794,186 eligible voters cast ballots citywide according to an unofficial tally by the New York City Board of Elections.
In Queens, the estimated turnout was 5.4 percent, a drop from the 13.5 percent in 1999 for a similar low profile election.
“Politicians are useless,” said Raymond Neufeld, 62, a funeral director born and raised in Elmhurst. “And that includes judges. None of them care about us, so worrying about them is like fighting windmills.”
Among Queens’ newer generations - mainly immigrants and young adults - the cause of low voter turnout boils down to visible demographics.
“Generally it takes a few generations for legal immigrants to adjust to local politics” said Jerry Skurnik, political consultant and publisher of Prime News, “while with younger folks, it’s always been the case across that they vote less.”
Among Queens’ older generations - mainly non-immigrants over forty - many attribute the decrease from 113,876 to 49,624 local voters within eight years to a growing frustration with a judiciary system that cannot seem to fix itself.
As with most older generations across county lines, state lines, and the country as a whole, those who have stayed in one place the longest have always accounted for the highest voter interest, typically because they have seen the most get ignored and/or go wrong.
Neufeld’s biggest concern is the blind eye that has been turned to the issue of overdevelopment in neighborhoods outside Manhattan, an issue that overshadows the accessibility of a clean water supply for 70 homes in Hamilton County.
“None of them want to address the problems here,” said Neufeld, “because none of them actually care enough. Think about the wealthiest judges and politicians. How many of them live in areas like this?”
Neufeld’s frustration, a shared sentiment among other Elmhurst natives, is the echo of a tireless complaint, even among the politically tired: The system will not improve because nobody cares and nobody cares because the system will not improve. That has been compounded by changes in the media, said Skurnik. “It’s become that much easier for people to follow everything that’s going on, but also that much easier for them to choose not to.”
Another problem is that local justices should be forced to run without party endorsements, said Tom McKenzie, 64, a former Supreme Court clerk born and raised in Elmhurst. McKenzie, who worked in the New York City Courts for 25 years, said that both single party and cross party endorsement, where certain Democratic candidates gain support from Republicans, hurt the integrity of local elections and limit the choice of voters. “Closed door politics,” he said, continually push voters who are not involved in party politics out of the process.
Vincent Tabone, vice chair of the Queens County Republican Party, said voter disinterest in Queens, where cross endorsement had been ruled out this term, also has to do with current restrictions on campaigns.
“Voters aren’t given the opportunity to hear about a candidate’s jurisprudence,” said Tabone. “Since potential judges are restricted in getting their message out, most people in the city just vote Democrat when it comes to the courts.”
When Brooklyn Civil Court Judge, Margarita Lpez Torres, sued the New York State Board of Elections in 2006 for corrupt practices, her complaint made it all the way to the Federal Supreme Court. According to Lpez Torres’s case, the system of electing New York justices has allowed local politicians to control who is elected.
“A lot of politicians become city judges as a final stepping stone in their careers,” said McKenzie, who also chose not to vote this month. “They make a decent chunk of money, and most of them appoint their own secretaries and lawyers, who also make a decent chunk of money. The trick is that they usually have to pay for party endorsements. Once they do, they serve the politicians who got them there.”
Since Lpez Torres’s case, the Federal Supreme Court has started looking into whether New York’s judicial election process, as a whole, is unconstitutional and in need of new regulations, namely the selection of candidates by a neutral party of lawyers and legal experts. As things stand now, the less informed, less jaded generations living in Queens have one advantage over folks like Neufeld. They do not have to fight windmills.
“I try to keep up with politics as much as I can,” said Frank Rus, 17, a senior high school student living in Elmhurst. “But I never hear about judges on the news. Who actually follows judges?”

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