The Democratic primaries for New York City public office will be over on Tuesday, June 22nd, but it will likely be at least several weeks before the public knows who won them, according to press reports. It’s not clear if we will get an in-person turnout number on election night, even though we won’t have a winner.

One certainty, however, will be the lamentations of the press about how low the turnout was for these primaries. The lamentations got an early start from The New York Post last week and continued in the New York Times. Reporters use the total enrollment numbers, whether Democratic or Democratic and Republican combined, compared to the turnout, as the basis of their lamentations.

But people who have spent their lives in the field in New York City politics, like me, know those enrollment numbers are wrong.              

             I SPENT DECADES KNOCKING ON DOORS                                         

The public needs to take articles about voter participation rates with more than a grain of salt. The enrollment records are seriously inaccurate.

I was a member of the State Assembly for 32 years and spent those decades knocking on the doors of voters during petitioning seasons, during primary and general elections, either for my own or for dozens of other candidates I was trying to help, or even just to encourage attendance at forums and events. The hundreds of people who worked with me and others on campaigns reported the same problem, from this effort, which is the following:

Out on the street, knocking on the doors of voters in New York City using Board of Elections enrollment records, one continuously encountered the reality that about one out of five voters just no longer lived at that address. That was the case in 1982, when I first started campaigning for my predecessor, to 2014, the last time I ran for office, and the thousands of doors I knocked on in between. My successor, Assemblymember Robert Carroll, who knocked on 10,000 doors during his campaign for the Assembly seat in 2016, thought one of five might be too high, so I chose 15% as the inaccuracy number for the enrollment statistics. This is a pre-COVID number, and the pandemic could have increased turnover.

One frequent reason for the missing voters we both agreed upon was that, in households with more than one registered voter, one of those voters might have moved, but the Post Office and the Board of Elections would get no information about that because mail to that voter continued to be received by other members of the household.

The critical point about the inaccuracy of the enrollment numbers is that the participation rates in the elections are actually higher because the enrollment numbers are lower. A good way to look at how many voters are still at their current address is the presidential general election, where there is maximum turnout and one can move beyond the anecdotal experience of myself and fellow campaign workers for the assertion about inaccurate enrollment.

Take a look at this comparison of voter participation in the 2020 Presidential election in New York City compared to two other counties in New York State, Monroe County and Suffolk County:


New York City’s Democratic registration is regularly about two-thirds of the enrolled voters, meaning that of the 3 million City voters in the presidential election about two million were Democrats. The active Democratic registered voter enrollment base on Nov.1,2020 was 3.349 million, but is it realistic that only two million Democrats showed up in the Presidential election out of 3.349 million? I also chose two counties in New York with much higher homeownership rates than New York City, Monroe (where the City of Rochester is located), and Suffolk County, to compare their turnout to their enrollment, because homeowners stay put more than tenants do.

Now look at NYC’s number. If one estimated that 15% of those enrolled had moved and were not eligible, the City’s turnout rates would become far more similar to the two other counties, at 72% turnout among those still living at their listed addresses, compared to 78% in Monroe County and 74% in Suffolk County.


Other major Democratic primaries in New York City have seen substantial turnout.

The 2016 Democratic Presidential primary between Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders saw 996,000 Democrats vote. Last year’s Democratic Presidential nomination primary in the City saw 811,000 Democrats vote, and that number excluded 84,000 Democrats whose mail ballots were invalidated. 900,000 Democrats in the City voted in the 2018 gubernatorial primary between Andrew Cuomo and Cynthia Nixon.

The COVID-19 cataclysm could have affected both enrollment accuracy and turnout. Large numbers of City residents may have moved and not re-registered to vote, but were still on the 2020 lists. Last year the COVID emergency prompted a State order to send mail ballot applications to all voters; this year a voter had to initiate an application, meaning there will be less voting by mail and lower turnout in this year’s primary.  Although some in-person campaigning has resumed, the levels of physical activity are still reduced compared to a normal year. Subway ridership is still down about 60% from normal, with campaigns still not using greeting voters at subways as a major physical activity. The State reduced the petition signature gathering requirements to qualify for City office by two-thirds this year, so that getting on the ballot for City Council required a mere 150 signatures. Traditionally petition drives were the start of major grass roots outreach efforts in campaigns, but not this year or last year.

Democratic primaries in New York City also have a self-reinforcing turnout limitation. Financial constraints compel campaigns to concentrate their resources- so they use lists of voters who regularly vote in primaries for their outreach, from mail, to texting, to phone banking, and door-knocking. As a result, large numbers of the registered Democrats get ignored in Primary outreach efforts. That doesn’t apply to TV advertising, or personal contact at street events, but results in voters who don’t regularly vote in primaries getting excluded from targeted efforts by campaigns.

The preservation of accurate enrollment records is a difficult and arduous bureaucratic task involving the Post Office and the Board of Elections. The turnover of voters, combined with people not filling out change-of-address forms or re-registering to vote, adds to the difficulties.  But too stringent a list maintenance policy inevitably results in the wrongful removal of voters from the rolls who are actually still at their homes, and has resulted in repeated lawsuits to block “ purging “ of voters, meaning their removal from voting lists.

Although nearly a million registered Democrats voted in the April 2016 New York Presidential primary, in fact thousands of additional voters were still unable to vote that day. It was later found out, from lawsuits brought by Common Cause and joined by the New York State Attorney General and others, that the City Board had purged 100,000 voters from the lists in violation of Federal and State law, with another 100,000 purged for other reasons. A settlement was reached between those parties in relation to that case.

Litigation on the same subject continued, and a Federal judge from a New York district court ordered, in early 2020, an end to the removal of inactive voter lists at the polls by New York’s local Boards of Elections. She required those records to be kept during elections in case voters had been accidentally removed from the active lists, to assure people’s right to vote. Judge Alison Nathan did however, acknowledge the difficulties of maintaining accurate lists in this quote from the case above:

 “This case arises out of a persistent problem faced by states in achieving this goal: voters move, and they do so often. [M]ore than 10% of Americans move every year.” Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Inst., 138 S. Ct. 1833, 1838 (2018) (citing Census Bureau data). In designing their voter-registration systems, states must account for this voter movement. But when many residents move, they do not update their voter registration. Indeed, “about 2.75 million people are said to be registered to vote in more than one State.”

In sum, there are a lot of reasons why the enrollment numbers are wrong, and the participation rates actually higher, from the practical to the bureaucratic, to the self-reinforcing.

The pundits who complain about low turnout in New York City are missing some of the unique circumstances of voting here.

Jim Brennan was a member of the New York State Assembly for 32 years and retired at the end of 2016. He chaired four committees, including the Assembly Committee on Corporations, Authorities, and Commissions for six years, the Committee on Cities for five years, and the Committee on Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities for six years. There are 96 Brennan laws on the books of the State of New York and Jim won three national awards for his legislative work during his career.


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