Written by Executive Vice President George Fontas
Aaron Sorkin has been credited with saying, “Decisions are made by those who show up.” Voter eligibility in our country has a varied history, beginning with only white landowners eligible to vote for our elected leaders. Over time the voter pool slowly expanded to incorporate white male laborers, black Americans, followed by women who gained suffrage in most states with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1920. It is important to note that Black Americans faced official and unofficial restrictions and suppression in states and cities until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
For decades these groups fought to expand the right to vote, because voting is considered a fundamental- but not constitutionally protected- right for all eligible citizens in our country. One of the most celebrated pillars of our democracy is the right to choose who represents your interests in government. However, only a minority of citizens actually go to the polls to exercise this right. The United States is fraught with a pattern of low participation especially compared to other countries.
So, why is voter turnout still so low, especially in elections during times of stability, when enthusiasm is high, the economy is strong, or there is a projected landslide?
Voter turnout in New York City’s last mayoral general election in 2013 set a record low: only 24 percent of registered voters went to the polls. Meaning, barely one million out of the 4.3 million registered voters in a city of approximately 8.4 million people participated. It is said to be the lowest turnout election since at least the mid-20th century.
According to the NY Times, experts speculate that the low turnout was due to an expected landslide. Supporters of Bill de Blasio stayed at home because they felt their vote was not needed, and anticipated that he would cruise to victory with an enormous margin. Supporters of his opponent Joe Lhota did not vote because the odds against him were overwhelming.
This one example shines a spotlight on how expectations play a major role in a voter’s likelihood of going to the polls, a pattern we see throughout New York City’s Mayoral elections.
With Election Day rapidly approaching, I decided to explore voter participation in our City’s Mayoral Election and how it has fluctuated over time. Although a minority of our citizens participate in municipal elections, even less participate in times of certainty or satisfaction. Let’s take a look at NYC’s Mayoral Election history.
NYC’s Mayoral Election History
1897: NYC’s First Mayor Robert Van Wyck Elected
A referendum vote in 1895 brought the five boroughs into one city. It was approved by the residents of Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, the Bronx and Manhattan in a citywide election, by a vote of 176,170 to 131,706 (although the measure passed in the proud City of Brooklyn by just 300 votes). NYC was born in 1898, just after the election for our first Mayor. Keep in mind large swaths of the population still could not vote at this time. Women over the age of 16 alone made up 20.6% of the total population.
1901: NYC Mayor Seth Low Elected
Four years later, participation of voters in relation to the population dropped to 10.1%. Let’s remember that large portions of the population could not vote and women would not win the right to vote in NYC until 1917. 
1917: NYC Mayor John Hylan Elected
Between the years of 1898 to 1945 there was rapid population growth. New York City became the capital of trade, finance, national communications, and of popular and high culture. More than a fourth of the 300 largest corporations in 1920 were headquartered there.
New York also gave women the right to vote in 1917, three years before the 19th amendment was enacted and women gained the right to vote nationwide.
According to an article posted in the History, Art and Archives of the United States House of Representatives, throughout American history, wartime necessity often opened new political and social avenues for marginalized groups. This scenario, among other factors, contributed to opening the door for voting rights in the United States after the First World War in 1917.
As an added bonus, for those who haven’t seen Mayor Hylan, he bore a striking resemblance to President Theodore Roosevelt (see photo). This too might have added a slight bump in the overall increase in turnout.
1945: NYC Mayor William O’Dwyer Elected
Over the course of 28 years, New York City saw steady growth in voter turnout with only a slight dip in 1925 and continued aggressive growth until 1945 when World War II ended. In 1945, the general election voter turnout reversed course and turnout fell to 20.41%. However, the “Greatest Generation” earned their name. Because this civic-minded population was highly engaged, post-World War II voter turnout in New York City Mayoral General Elections soared to new heights. In 1949, a record number of voters came out to pull the lever. Mayor William O’Dwyer walked away with the victory but one year later, O’Dwyer resigned and a new election was held.
1949: NYC Mayor William O’Dwyer Reelected
Population: 7,815,000; Votes: 2,591,683; Participation Percentage of Total Population: 33.1%
The voter turnout in 1949 and 1950 were by far the highest in city history, at 33% of the total population going to the polls. Mayor O’Dwyer was reelected in 1949 but resigned a year later. Vincent Impellitteri was appointed in his place.
1950: NYC Mayor Vincent Impellitteri
Population: 7,815,000; Votes: 2,626,476; Participation Percentage of Total Population: 33.6%
The 1950 Mayoral Election was New York City’s largest in history with 2.69 million New Yorkers turning out to vote. Sicilian born Vincent Impellitteri won the special election after Mayor O’Dwyer resigned. Three years later was replaced by Robert Wagner.
1973: NYC Mayor Abe Beame
1977: NYC Mayor Ed Koch
Population 7.3 million Votes: 1,435,113 Participation Percentage of Total Population: 19.61%
Between 1973 and 1977 New York saw a drop in population as well as participation. Movement to the suburbs pulled many New Yorkers away from their local polls. When New York City’s finances turned bleak and the challenges of delivering critical services were strained due to the City’s budget deficits, voters did not turn out in droves for new leadership. In fact, results were quite the opposite. Mayor Koch road to victory on lower turnout figures.
Once the City’s fortunes began to rebound and voters started to expect a Mayor Koch re-election, voter turnout suffered even more. Numbers were the lowest they had been since pre-women’s suffrage. Mayor Edward Koch marched to victory two more times during lower voter turnout and the Republican Party even nominated Koch, a Democrat, in 1981 when a re-election of their own party candidate in 1985 seemed doubtful.
1989: NYC Mayor David Dinkins
Population: 7.29 Million; Votes: 1.9 Million; Participation Percentage of Total Population: 26%
1993: NYC Mayor Rudolph Giuliani
Population: 7.52 Million; Votes: 1.889 Million; Votes Participation Percentage of Total Population: 25%
Two Elections: Same Candidates, Same Turnout, Different Results
In 1989, the general election turnout skyrocketed, up 81% from 1985 during a contentious race between David Dinkins and Rudolph Giuliani. With voter turnout at 1.9 million, the race was the closest ever seen. Four years later, the race between David Dinkins and Rudolph Giuliani brought out almost exactly the same number of voters, 1.889 million, but with different results: Rudolph Giuliani was elected. The margin of victory was almost exactly the same as Dinkins vs. Giuliani in 1989 (Dinkins +2.58%; Giuliani +2.44%).
Rudolph Giuliani’s re-election in 1997 evidenced the same voter behavior that led Edward Koch to victory, yet another example of how lower voter turnout is based largely on the expectation that one candidate will easily cruise to victory.
2013: NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio Elected
Population 8.4 Million Votes: 1,102,400 Voters Registered: 26%, Participation Percentage of Total Population: 13%
In 2013 the city reached record lows for a modern New York City mayoral general election. The 2013 drop was so sharp that it turned out the least amount of voters since 1921 when women were first granted the option to vote in NYC Mayoral Elections.
In the 2012 presidential election the country’s population was nearly 313 million, of which about 241 million were at the legal voting age of 18, according to the most recent data available from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. Nearly 194 million Americans — or 80 percent of those eligible — were registered to vote.
Many citizens fought for the right to vote, and historically a minority of us make the choice as to who speaks for us in government. Voting is not only a right, but also a privilege that too few of us take advantage of.
If you would like to become part of the process, and don’t know where to vote, you can find your polling location here: http://www.rockthevote.com/get-informed/elections/state/new-york.html?referrer=https://www.google.com/
See how our voter turnout stacks up to other cities and nations:
Writing and research credit to Tom Gray, Natasha Scott, Lindsay Safran, Virginia Taddoni.
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