The highest number of Long Island voters in at least 15 years sat on their hands Election Day, as participation in the electoral process continued to tumble.
The Long Island turnout reflects a trend of declining voter participation in off-year elections since the 1970s when county elections generally drew 30 percent of voters, said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies.
Levy and other experts say the factors driving that decline include fewer competitive races because of political maneuverings and growing cynicism among voters over corruption scandals and partisan gridlock in Washington, D.C.
“Democracy fails when an election is held and no one seems to care,” said Gerald Benjamin, a political scientist at the State University of New York at New Paltz.
Suffolk turnout this year was at 19.17 percent, half of what it was 20 years ago, according to Suffolk Board of Election records.
In Nassau, turnout was 20.7 percent. Both counties had several thousand absentee ballots still to count.
Turnout is generally lower in off-year elections when there are no high-profile federal or state races to draw voters, and that was the case this year. In the most high-profile race on Long Island, acting District Attorney Madeline Singas beat Hempstead Supervisor Kate Murray.
Given the resources spent — almost $4 million total by both parties — Nassau Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs said turnout was “disappointing.”
“What we’ve seen is turnout has been diminishing every cycle,” he said.
Levy said one reason is that there are “fewer and fewer competitive races because of gerrymandering and other factors,” which fuels the notion that their vote doesn’t matter.
Many of the races in both counties this year were blowouts. In 12 of 18 Suffolk legislative races, candidates won by 20 percentage points or more. In Nassau, 17 of 19 legislative races were won by 20 percentage points.
Daniel Altschuler, an organizer of the advocacy group Make the Road New York, said the group knocked on 10,000 doors in a nonpartisan get-out-the-vote effort. But with partisan redistricting tilting many races, “it makes it harder to convince people that their votes could make the difference when they know that the election will be a landslide.”
All of Suffolk’s top-of-the-ticket races were lopsided victories by the incumbents. County Executive Steve Bellone easily won re-election against Republican James O’Connor by 14 points. Islip Supervisor Angie Carpenter, a Republican, won by 25 points. And Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine won by 45 points.
Party leaders since 2005 have made cross-endorsement deals or nonaggression pacts for top county offices, said Paul Sabatino, a former longtime legislative counsel and former deputy county executive.
He said it was clear early on this cycle that Democrats didn’t plan to compete hard in town races in Islip and Brookhaven, while Republicans conceded early on that Bellone would be re-elected.
‘Turned off or tuned out’
The noncompetitive races “have resulted in less and less meaningful opportunities for voters to participate,” Sabatino said. “People are either turned off or they’re tuned out. It’s sending a bad signal that people don’t have confidence in their government anymore.”
But party leaders said there were no deals struck — just a dearth of high-quality candidates willing to step up, raise money and run campaigns. That often leads to candidates who don’t campaign and don’t expect to win.
Christian DeGeorge, a Democrat running for town council in Brookhaven in a heavily Republican seat, told a civic group in late October that he had no chance. “I’m the paper candidate for the 3rd District. That means I have no chance I could possibly win,” he said to chuckles and gasps from the audience, in a video posted online https://www.dropbox.com/s/1x6rd6kxpyj28tm/ABCO%203rd%20District%20%20Candidates%20Night%2010-28-15.mp4?dl=0. “It means me and a couple of others were thrown up here just to fill a name on the ballot. It’s terrible. They fooled me and they fooled you.”
Suffolk Democratic Party chairman Richard Schaffer said the parties put employees of the boards of elections and other candidates even if they never plan to campaign, because it can be difficult to recruit candidates. “It’s better than leaving it completely open,” he said.
But John Jay LaValle, Suffolk County Republican chairman, blamed low turnout on lack of enthusiasm for Bellone and a lack of money for O’Connor to get his message out.
He said Bellone had campaign donors sewn up early on. “We live in a pay-to-play county. Resources were abundant for Steve Bellone, and not abundant for Jim O’Connor,” he said.
In addition, he said better-known candidates whom he tried to recruit for legislative and county executive races backed out.
“Candidates we were attempting to recruit were being discouraged from seeking public office by special interest groups and other entities,” he said.
Schaffer, like LaValle, said there was no nonaggression pact, although he acknowledged he spent money where he thought he had the best chance to win.
“There is a difficulty finding people to run in some of these districts,” he said, noting that to defeat Romaine would take $1 million. “I have a limited amount of resources. I have to allocate them to the most competitive races first.”
In Nassau, Levy said the arrests of state Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) on federal corruption charges and an Oyster Bay contractor on bribery charges likely kept some voters home, especially in GOP strongholds that have historically had higher turnout.
“Voters can show their disenchantment by coming to the polls and punishing someone with their vote, or when it comes to the candidates of their own party, by simply staying home and sitting on their hands,” Levy said.
“It’s ironic, these offices often have far more of an impact on the day-to-day lives of voters than the president or federal government,” Levy said. “It’s been very sad in terms of what it says about what people seem to care about.”
Jacobs said this year the county party focused less of its time and money on get-out-the-vote efforts and more on trying to persuade Republican voters through ads and mailers to cross party lines and vote for Singas based on her experience as a prosecutor.
“Every Democratic candidate who has won, has done so by appealing to Republicans,” Jacobs said, referring to Singas, Congresswoman and former Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice, and former Democratic Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi.
Michael Dawidziak, a political consultant based in Sayville, said turnout on Long Island was the lowest in the 38 years he’s been running political races.
He said consistent negative campaigning also has depressed turnout, as well as blowback from a national distrust of partisan politics. “There’s no word I can poll right now that polls better than ‘independent,’ ” he said. “There’s nothing that polls worse than ‘partisan gridlock.’ That’s driving a lot of voter apathy right now.”
Schaffer called for a change in state law to make it more convenient to vote, whether it’s moving Election Day to weekends, as has been proposed by Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington), or allowing early voting, where polls are open for multiple days.
“I’m willing to call it a crisis in voter participation,” he said. “We have to seriously look at making it easier to vote.”
Altschuler said low voter turnout is a failure of policy locally and at the state level. “Albany has utterly failed to make registering to vote and casting your ballot easier,” he said, noting policies adopted in some states, such as early voting or same-day registration. He said partisan redistricting “continues to leave us with vast swaths of noncompetitive elections that leave voters turned off.”
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