Most New York citizens of voting age do not vote — and they definitely do not vote in mayoral primaries or elections.
That means this year’s candidates, If they have any hope of getting to Gracie Mansion, will need to build coalitions of supporters willing to get to the polls on primary day and Election Day from an increasingly diverse voter roll.
When Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney for President in 2012, less than 50 percent of those in the city who could have qualified to vote did so, with some 2.5 million votes cast. When Michael Bloomberg beat former Comptroller Bill Thompson for mayor in 2009, only 24 percent of those who could have voted did so, with approximately 1.2 million votes cast. The ratios were similar for every election since 1989.
The record in primaries is even worse. In the contested Democratic and Republican primaries for president in 2008, less than 1 million votes were cast or about 20 percent. In the Democratic primary for mayor in 2009, only 330,000 votes were cast — which would mean that only about 11 percent of registered voters — and less of all of those who could enroll and probably would enroll as Democrats bothered to turn out.
New York City has roughly 4.3 million registered active voters and an additional 375,000 inactive voters as of April 2013. So registration of active voters is about 86 percent of citizen of voting age population. However, that number is misleading, since beyond the inactive voters, about 23 percent of NYC registrants are characterized as deadwood for either having moved or died since they registered.
In short, only small fractions of New Yorkers who could vote do vote, and many are not even registered.
Turnout isn’t the only challenge facing candidates; they also must deal with the diversity of the electorate.
Since David Dinkins was elected mayor in 1989, the New York City electorate has also changed substantially both racially and ethnically. Immigrants and their children — many of whom are either Hispanic or non-white — are now eligible to vote, while the proportion of non-Hispanic white voting age citizens in New York City continues to decline.
This shift, however, has yet to propel a non-white candidate to the mayoralty since Dinkins, though it is plain from the candidacies of Fernando Ferrer in 2005 and Thompson in 2009 that Hispanics and blacks will vote for one of their own.
Most notably, the proportion of the electorate that is non-Hispanic white has dropped from 54 percent in 1990 to about 42 percent for the latest year. Most likely it has declined even more since then.
At the same time, the percent of the electorate that is non-Hispanic black has declined to about 24 percent after increasing slightly from 1990 to 2000. Meanwhile, the Hispanic electorate has grown from about 18 to 23 percent, and the Asian electorate has gone from about 4 percent to about 10 percent.
While roughly 90 percent of voting age non-Hispanic white population are citizens, and virtually all Puerto Ricans are citizens, only 26 percent of Mexicans are citizens. For the other Hispanic groups, the range is from the 40 to 60 percent. For instance, about 59 percent of Dominicans over 18 are citizens. (Click to see the tables).
The same pattern holds for the Asian groups. For South Asians, generally about 60 percent of the voting age are citizens, while for the Chinese and Koreans it is also about 60 percent. Both the growth of the immigrant population and the length of time specific groups are in the United States and the extent to which such groups have children and their children become 18 affects the size of the citizen population of each group. So as time goes on, more and more will be citizens and thus have a potential political clout.
The South Asian group is now about 2 percent of the electorate, the Dominicans and Chinese are both about 5 percent, while the Puerto Ricans are 11 percent. All of the other groups are no more than about one percent — and often much smaller. Of course, they are larger in certain areas, but only in a few cases do they approximate an absolute majority.
What then are the general implications of these changes in the electorate and the fact that so few New Yorkers vote in the Mayoral and other local elections?
First, registration of citizens in any group is very important. Due to the limitations of the enrollment data (birthplace is not collected and the count is not an accurate reflection of who is actually in the city and registered to vote), it is very difficult to understand exactly what the registration level is for citizens for each group.
However, getting those who can to file citizenship applications and then get them registered is critical. Once they are enrolled, for a group to maximize its influence it is necessary for them to turnout and vote.
At the same time, because non-Hispanic white electorate has declined to near 40 percent, winning an election means that other groups must work in coalition. If the new groups are split apart or split among themselves and one or more candidates from each group runs a campaign that does not reach across groups, they will undoubtedly lose.
This is a lesson that John Liu learned when he unsuccessfully ran for City Council in 1997. He faced two other opponents of Chinese descent, and challenged an incumbent who famously characterized the increase of Asians in the Flushing area, as an invasion. It was also a hard-earned lesson in the 2001 election when term limits forced a large turnover in the City Council but the number of seats won by community and ethnic activists was very few.
Though the growth of immigrant and ethnic groups can empower such groups, to win elective office usually requires reaching across groups and ethnic divisions and fashioning a winning coalition. It is also means getting members of those groups through the citizenship process, registered and to the polls.
That last step — identifying and getting voters to the polls — is just as important to any candidate as gaining wide public recognition and developing a favorable image. This year’s election may have a high turnout for a primary, but a high turnout would be anything just above 15 percent of those eligible to vote.
Now that New Yorkers are beginning the process of choosing a mayor, looking at the data on the changing electorate simply reinforces the fact about how broad the appeal must be to win elected office in New York City.
Not only do Republican candidates need to go beyond the 16 percent of electorate who enroll in the GOP as Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani did, but Democratic candidates need to get support beyond their ethnic group and local area to even have chance.
Given all of this, it is not surprising that few are certain where the current election will go, either during the primary in September, the likely Democratic runoff, or the final election in November.
Andrew A. Beveridge has taught sociology at Queens College since 1981, is the president and co-founder of Social Explorer (www.socialexplorer.com), a premier online demographic web site, has done demographic analyses for the New York Times since 1993 and has been a contributor to Gotham Gazette since 2000. He is co-editor of “New York and Los Angeles: The Uncertain Future” (Oxford University Press, 2013). The opinions expressed are his alone.