It’s been a long nine years considering the meaning of Bill de Blasio, New York’s two-term progressive mayor who surged out of a crowded Democratic field in 2013. Was he the backlash to the cold technocracy of the Bloomberg administration? Yes. Did he represent the resonant politics of fighting inequality? Yes. A civil rights campaign against police abuse? Definitely. Few have invested more in this pursuit than de Blasio himself, who offered unsolicited advice to Hillary Clinton in 2016 and took his dour talents to Iowa in 2019 to briefly run for president.
The question of Bill de Blasio’s import is natural, since he is an executive of a city with more residents than all but 12 states. What’s odd is that his coronation came with just 282,344 votes—a hair over 40 percent of the turnout in a primary election where less than 1 in 4 New York Democrats voted. His mandate in that decisive contest: the support of 1 in every 29 New Yorkers. (He won 800,000 votes in the general against a hapless Republican challenger, in a city with more than 5 million eligible voters.)
That primary, believe it or not, was what passes for a high-turnout election in this town. This comes to mind as the city’s political class struggles to process the bewildering rise of Andrew Yang, a neophyte test-prep and nonprofit executive who became a curious but well-liked presence during the recent Democratic presidential primary. Despite a lack of experience or endorsements—despite having never voted for mayor before!—Yang is now trouncing well-groomed public servants like Scott Stringer and Eric Adams in virtually every poll.
By now you’ve surely heard several explanations for his success, but there’s a more fundamental, structural reason to believe in Yang’s chances: New York City has a system designed to depress turnout in local elections. Long thought to favor machine politicians and interest groups, New York’s low-turnout elections have recently produced some big surprises—notably, the victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley, a top House Democrat, in 2018. It simply doesn’t take that many votes to change the outcome.
In New York City, as in many cities, elections are held in off years, depressing turnout by 50 percent. “When turnout goes down that much, it completely changes the dynamics,” says Sarah Anzia, a professor of political science at the University of California–Berkeley who wrote the book on the suppressive effects of off-year elections. “Instead of asking who doesn’t vote, you ask who does. People who have a big stake in the election will probably still turn out. A lot of those people are members of interest groups, who have some stake in keeping elections off-cycle. Each successfully mobilized vote counts a lot more.” Sometimes that means unions, but it’s better to think of interest groups more broadly, she said: “Any group that’s well-funded, well-organized, can mobilize votes. … It’s possible they would have something to gain from a low-turnout environment.”
Yang’s candidacy might not appear to fit that mold; he’s been perceived as an outsider with a stronger connection to the general public (Redditors, Joe Rogan listeners, even Republicans) than to hardcore Dem voters. He has no support from the city’s powerful unions. But it might be a misperception to think of Yang as such a stranger to the weird world of a New York City primary. What if, instead of changing the game, he’s just playing it perfectly?
Yang’s campaign is run by the seasoned consultant Bradley Tusk, who has steered him toward some cynical, canny positions. Another old-school New York flack, Lis Smith, is organizing his super PAC. His name recognition advantage is actually slightly larger with likely Dem voters than with the general public (remember that after the presidential primary, he became an enthusiastic surrogate for Joe Biden and a cable news talking head). Yang is also, surprisingly, winning by double digits with voters over 50, who accounted for 3 in 4 voters in the 2013 primary, according to the AARP. Finally, Yang is benefiting, for now, from a widespread sense of ambivalence—more than 50 percent of likely Democratic voters were undecided in March, which raises the question of whether they’ll turn up at all in June. In each case, Yang appears poised to reap the rewards of a low-turnout election—and a surge from the apolitical Yang Gang would just be the icing on the cake.
For the New York political establishment, the irony of such a result would be rich indeed.
New York state has long been a national embarrassment when it comes to all things voting. Until 2020 the state had no early voting; it still has no same-day registration, to say nothing of the automatic ballots by mail now distributed in states like Washington. The Board of Elections in New York City is notoriously incompetent. After taking control in 2018, state Democrats concluded that the state was in the bottom 10 in turnout nationally, and ranked worst in the Northeast.
One fix the state Democrats achieved was to consolidate state and federal primaries, which had been held on two different days, a bizarre and expensive compromise that everyone agreed suppressed voter participation.
But the practice of having as many voting days as possible continues in New York City, which will hold six elections in 2021. Sticking to off-year elections, by the way, is required by the state constitution.
Across the country, turnout in mayoral contests has fallen precipitously since the 1970s for reasons that have little to do with timing: the decline of machine politics, deindustrialization and waning public sector power, the exodus of conservative white ethnics, and the decline of open racial conflict in local politics. Reform politicians valiantly tinker to increase engagement. But the fix is hiding in plain sight: It’s the timing.
Being out of sync with state and federal elections is good for politicians, who can run for one office while holding another as backup. Because city elections aren’t at the same time as state elections, it’s common for New York state officials to win city positions and vice versa—leaving offices vacant in the middle of the term. After five state officials won city positions in 2013, Gov. Andrew Cuomo opted not to call special elections, leaving nearly a million New Yorkers shortchanged in Albany for more than a year.
But filling those jobs quickly isn’t easy either: The city has had four different special elections on three different days this winter to fill vacated City Council seats. Those seats come with huge power over local development and transportation, along with a say in the city’s $88 billion budget. In two February specials, neither winning candidate managed to clear 5,000 votes in districts with approximately 100,000 registered voters. In one ranked-choice contest in March, for the 15th Council District seat in the Bronx vacated by newly elected U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres, a lawyer named Oswald Feliz won with 1,070 first-choice votes (1,766 overall) out of 93,000 registered voters. A thousand votes to govern a district the size of Savannah and help dole out a budget bigger than most states’.
Why does New York City do this? The idea of off-cycle elections was popularized by big-city Progressives in the 19th century, who advocated for a “more informed, more involved” electorate, according to Zoltan Hajnal, an expert on election timing at the University of California–San Diego. Today, most municipal elections in the United States are held off-cycle, and proponents often cite the increased attention to local issues and the relative ease of campaigning at a quieter time.
In Hajnal’s view, those benefits don’t outweigh the positives associated with synchronizing elections. “Every single study that’s looked at election timing, and there are 10 or so, shows that moving to on-cycle, especially presidential, doubles turnout. Emerging research is showing that it greatly diversifies or makes turnout more representative. The biggest shift is in terms of age distribution—shifting to on-cycle, you bring in younger voters.”
Who benefits from the status quo? The consensus has long been that off-cycle elections favor interest groups such as unions, who can organize mobilization efforts and wield proportionally greater clout. But really, a low-turnout election benefits a strong campaign—whether it’s a union-backed candidate, a dark-money waterfall, or the insurgent group of door-knockers behind AOC or the Yang Gang.
If Yang wins, it would be a big shock to union-backed lifelong pols like Stringer and Adams who know this system and count on normies not showing up. But it would be an even bigger shock if Yang wins without cracking open the low-turnout paradigm. Who do you think was watching all those presidential debates on MSNBC? Who mainlined CNN during the pandemic? Many of the people who reliably vote in the city’s off-cycle elections.
The point of synchronizing New York elections to juice turnout isn’t to give a boost to one candidate or another. It’s to deliver a mayor that’s preferred by the largest possible group of residents. Yang might be that person, and it would be fascinating to see what a big mandate for a charismatic amateur might reveal about the city’s political culture and voter preferences. Unfortunately, after a tiny group of New Yorkers cast their votes in June, it will be hard to say for sure.