Doesn’t anybody in Queens and the rest of New York state care about their democracy?
The State Senate Democratic Conference sought to answer that question with a voter survey conducted earlier this year. In releasing the study’s results last week, the conference concluded that voters who didn’t participate in the most recent presidential election had plenty of excuses not to do so.
According to state Senator Toby Ann Stavisky, the survey polled registered voters in New York state who did not participate in the 2016 general election. Just 57 percent of eligible voters in the Empire State cast a ballot in the pivotal election — ranking New York 41st out of the 50 states in voter participation.
Nearly 28.5 percent of registered voters who didn’t vote in the 2016 election claimed that they had work or school obligations that precluded them from voting; Election Day is not a legal holiday, and the polls are open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., giving voters just 15 hours of the day to cast their ballot.
Even so, federal law allows workers to take time from their day to vote in an election without being docked by their employer.
Another 13.8 percent said they couldn’t vote due to illness or disability, while 6.12 percent said they were tied up caring for their child or a loved one. Absentee voting may have given these voters the ability to participate in the election ahead of time, but the survey found that just 38 percent of voters have cast an absentee ballot in one election or another. Moreover, of those who didn’t vote in the 2016 general election, 12.39 percent said they couldn’t get an absentee ballot.
Considering the 2016 election was headlined by the heated presidential race between two New Yorkers — Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump — it seems almost implausible that someone couldn’t keep Election Day in mind as the calendar turned to November. And yet, the survey found plenty of New Yorkers who were forgetful.
Approximately 17.8 percent of those surveyed said they didn’t know the date of the election (it was Nov. 8), while 16.2 percent simply forgot to vote. Another 4.23 percent said they didn’t know the location of their polling place; an equal number of surveyed voters said they just didn’t have the time to vote for their next president and other representatives.
If that wasn’t bad enough, turnout in the 2017 municipal election was even worse. A New York City Board of Elections report found that just 22.3 percent of Queens’ 1,211,203 registered voters cast a vote in the election.
Stavisky said the results of the survey, and the lack of voter participation in general, are unacceptable — but they are also signs that it’s time for substantial change in the way New York holds elections.
“New York is a pillar of progressive values and beliefs and should not rank at the bottom of voter participation,” Stavisky said. “We need to lead the nation in encouraging citizens to be actively engaged in the democratic process. Empowering New Yorkers to have a more active role in their state government should not be a partisan or controversial issue.”
Stavisky touted the Senate Democratic Conference’s voting reform legislative package, which would allow for early voting in primary, special and general elections; permit voters to obtain absentee ballots in advance without declaring a specific reason; automatically registering voters who interact with state or local agencies; creating a more modern voter registration system to reduce inaccuracies and disenfranchisement; pre-registering 16- and 17-year-olds to vote; and enabling voters to more easily and swiftly change their party affiliation.
Another bill in the package would consolidate the federal and state primaries to be held on one date. Other legislation would expand language options for ballots and provide voters with more advanced notice of when elections take place.
In 2018, New Yorkers will head to the polls three separate times: on Tuesday, June 26, for federal primaries (House seats and one U.S. Senate seat); on Thursday, Sept. 13, for statewide primaries (governor, lieutenant governor, state comptroller, attorney general, state Senate and assembly seats) and the Nov. 6 general election. In Queens, the polls will be open each of these days from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.
There is still time for you to register to vote if you have not already done so. Click here to find out.