Yeah, Voter Turnout in the Year’s Mayoral Races Looks Pretty Dismal So Far

The past two presidential elections have each posted turnout rates of about 61 percent. Let’s see how that compares to this year’s high-profile mayoral elections so far.

New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who won this year’s Democratic mayoral primary in NYC. Credit: William Alatriste

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A number of hotly contested mayoral elections have gone down in some of the country’s biggest cities this year, and a few more will take place come November. But as usual in an off year with no presidential or mid-term elections, voter turnout has been low and in some cases abysmal, often totaling less than 20 percent.

The past two presidential elections have each posted turnout rates of about 61 percent. Let’s see how that compares to this year’s high-profile mayoral elections so far:

New York City:

  • 22% turnout for Democratic primary
  • 12% turnout for Republican primary

For the first time since 2001, New York does not have an incumbent mayor seeking reelection. Still, neither the Republican or Democratic primary managed to generate much interest from voters. In 2001, 30 percent of registered Democrats and 14 percent of registered Republicans voted in the mayoral primary. This year the numbers were much lower, though Democratic turnout was up from 2009, when only 11 percent of Democrats voted.

But the results still indicate only a fraction of the city’s opinions. To put the numbers in perspective, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio won the Democratic primary based on the votes of only 3 percent of New Yorkers. And the September 10 primary, which tallied 700,000 votes, was open to only those who had been registered with a political party within one year of the election. This excluded more than 800,000 New Yorkers from voting in the primaries.

Such a measly showing is not unusual for New York state, which has notorious history of low voter turnout. In the 2010 midterm elections, the state had the lowest voter turnout in the nation. Even in the 2008 presidential election, New York ranked 41th out of 50 for voter turnout and fell even further, to 44th, in 2012.

Buffalo, NY:

  • 20% turnout for Democratic primary

Only 14,000 of Buffalo, N.Y. residents showed up at the polls in the city’s September 10 Democratic primary, a number that one local newspaper called “embarrassing and just plain pathetic.” Nearly 70 percent of the votes cast went to incumbent mayor Byron W. Brown, but even this means that he received only 6 percent of the city’s support.

Both Brown and opponent Bernard A. Tolbert are black, which some have implied led to a less contentious race, as voters couldn’t vote along racial or ethnic lines. Despite the notable lack of a white candidate on the ballot (Republican challenger Sergio R. Rodriguez is Hispanic), the race failed to generate much interest at all. Another possible reason for the low turnout is that Brown led early in polls and maintained his lead, giving the impression that victory was all but secured. Brown will now face Rodriguez in the November general election.

Los Angeles:

  • 21% turnout for primary
  • 23.3% for runoff

Los Angeles saw a close mayoral election this year. Due to similarities in the candidate’s platforms, much of the campaigning was done on the basis of personal background and qualifications, which some have hypothesized was off-putting to L.A. residents. The race was expensive — the city spent $19 million running the election and the candidates shelled out several million more for huge quantities of air time.

In the end Democrat Eric Garcetti, winner of both the March primary and May runoff election, was elected with the support of slightly more than 12 percent of the public. This year’s primary turnout was actually higher than in 2009, when just 18 percent of residents showed up to the polls, but it still indicates a real lack of engagement with local politics.


  • 17.96% turnout for nonpartisan race

In the same year Detroit went bankrupt, about 96,600 city residents cast votes in the August 6 mayoral primary. Nearly half of these were write-ins for Democrat Mike Duggan — not to be confused with Mike Dugeon, also a write-in candidate — whose name was left off the ballot due to residency issues (Fourteen other candidates made it onto the ballot, among them Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, who finished second.) Duggan and Napoleon, both Democrats, will advance to the November general election. Whoever wins, it is unlikely that he will hold much power, given that much of it belongs to the state-appointed emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, for the time being.

Outdated voter registrations could have contributed to the misleadingly low turnout. Detroit has 550,00 registered voters, a number that seems suspect in a city with a population of 650,000 and shrinking. Removing a registered voter from the list can take years, which means many former Detroiters still inflate the city’s low turnout rates.


  • 5.6% turnout for nonpartisan race

In perhaps the most dismal case of all, not even 11,500 Cincinnatians turned up at the polls for the September 10 primary. This record-low turnout was due in large part to the fact that the top two candidates advance to the general election, and Democrats Roxanne Qualls and John Cranley proved far more popular than Republicans Jim Berns and Queen Noble.

Given that the election costs taxpayers $437,000, the cost per voter boils down to nearly $38 for an election where the field of serious candidates hasn’t changed at all. Former mayor David Mann, along with other prominent Cincinnati officials, have begun to express interest in restructuring the primary system.

Despite their shared party affiliation, Qualls and Cranley are running on very different platforms. They have already launched a series of attack ads, which may drum up some controversy and prompt higher turnout for the November general election.


  • 36% turnout for nonpartisan race

More than a third of Seattle residents cast ballots in the city’s nine-candidate August 6 race, 2 percent fewer than in the 2009 primaries. In comparison to Seattle’s record-breaking 2012 presidential election turnout of 81 percent, turnout this August looked meager, though more impressive when compared to other recent primaries.

Democrats State Sen. Ed Murray and incumbent Mayor Mike McGinn came in first and second, winning 30 and 27 percent of the vote, respectively. Both will move on to the November 5 general election. Seattle has a history of voting out incumbent mayors, so McGinn has his work cut out for him after finishing second to Murray, whose more moderate platform appeals to voters who find McGinn’s agenda is too liberal. Murray has recently gained support from the majority of the City Council, which should help him along.

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Tags: mayorsbill de blasio2013 mayoral raceseric garcettimike duggan

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