In light of New York’s struggles with homelessness, public housing, and other challenges with no easy answers, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recent decision to make a priority out of “democracy” comes off as a distraction. Nothing in his “DemocracyNYC” plan will do much about New York’s historically low levels of voter turnout, as it’s premised on ignorance of the nature of democracy and local politics.
In trying to strengthen democracy in New York City, de Blasio would be building off a weak base. Democracy has never been New York’s strong suit. City politics in the nineteenth century were literally riotous. The draft riots during the Civil War were only the most famous of many incidents that tarnished the reputation of mass democracy in the eyes of many. Someone who witnessed the city’s first mayoral election in 1834, which sparked violence that armed troops had to put down, could be forgiven for thinking that property or literacy requirements for voting were not a bad idea.
The twentieth century saw the rise of the Board of Estimate and Robert Moses. The board was a strange, anti-democratic institution through which the mayor shared power with other city officeholders. Its decision-making processes were obscure, it stood in violation of “one man, one vote,” and it helped ensure the almost total irrelevance of the city council. As for Moses, he was surely one of the most powerful unelected public officials in American history. He could not have thrived for so long in a healthy democracy.
Voter turnout is driven by competitive elections. Last November, just 24 percent of registered voters showed up to vote in New York City’s election; only two of the 54 races for city council and citywide office were decided by less than ten percentage points. De Blasio makes no call for a revival of the Republican Party. In New York, Democrats have controlled the city council since 1915. Only a functional two-party system can deliver increased electoral competitiveness. Then again, as Frank Barry notes in his book The Scandal of Reform, no Republican mayor in modern city history has worked toward such a goal, either.
Good-government reformers insist that public corruption stifles political participation, but experience suggests otherwise. At the height of its power in the 1920s, Tammany Hall and its allies could turn out 700,000 votes. In the 2017 election, only 1,092,746 people voted overall, even though New York’s population has grown by 2 million people since the 1920s. Tammany Hall was as outrageously corrupt as its legend suggests—but since its decline, no other entity has come close to the standard it set for civic engagement.
Even leaving aside his own campaign-finance improprieties, de Blasio’s push to boost political participation by “Tak[ing] Big Money Out of Politics” is preposterous. New York City’s matching-funds program is already the envy of campaign-finance reform advocates nationwide. Candidates for city office live in fear of the Campaign Finance Board and its aggressive enforcement of contribution and expenditure restrictions. Since the matching-funds program’s inception in the late 1980s, the controls have gotten progressively tighter, even as voter-turnout levels have plummeted.
De Blasio wants to get more teenagers registered to vote and remove allegedly significant barriers to voting, such as a lack of “up-to-date information about polling places”—but the Board of Elections mails out notices about the location of each electoral district’s voting sites, and the city provides voter-registration forms to every high school graduate with their diplomas. These new efforts won’t strengthen democracy, either; the main reason that most people don’t participate in local politics is because they think it’s tedious. Attending a two-hour town hall meeting, several evenings a year, and listening to policy briefings and arguments about zoning and sewage matters—that’s local self-government. Attending an anti-Trump rally along with hundreds of likeminded people—that’s politics-as-entertainment, and it’s much more popular.
For New York City residents, the intrusion of the federal and state governments into local matters—overwhelmingly the result of progressive policymaking—creates a mathematical paradox: their vote for mayor counts for more than their vote for president, but their local vote is worth less because the mayor’s power is more limited. Thus, city turnout rates are much higher for national elections than for local ones. “Rock the Vote”-type efforts will always fail because they’re based on the fiction that exercising self-government is fun. It’s not, and that truth underlies one of the central tensions within all modern political-reform pushes like de Blasio’s: How do you get more people to participate in politics without deceiving them about what political participation entails?
Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office