This year’s New York City Primary was different than ever before. It was held in June––not in September, which has been the case forever. For previous elections, there was never early, in-person voting––but now there was. And there was Rank Choice Voting, which enabled a voter to make more than one selection in their order of preference. Many viewed these voting innovations as an experiment intended to expand the number of voters and encourage a bigger and more diversified reservoir of candidates from which to choose.
But did this “experiment” work? Did it the yield the results intended?
Unless a candidate clearly won by over 50%, the answers may not be known for weeks. But one thing is known for sure: overall, the number of voters throughout the city did not dramatically increase. Why? With so many examples of voter suppression and disenfranchisement seen in other states, these measures in New York were supposed to do the opposite. They were supposed to motivate more people to vote. They were supposed to make it easier to vote. They were supposed to create a broader base of candidates––more appealing, newer, “woke” candidates to choose from––who were not beholden to political party machines and big money interests.
So, what happened?
Perhaps the answer lies with the root problem. It’s not just government-inflicted voter suppression, it’s self-inflicted voter suppression…also called voter apathy. Something stuck in my mind as I exited my voting place on Election Day. I heard a campaign worker, who had been handing out literature for his candidate on the street corner, saying to people exiting the poll site wearing a sticker that read: I Voted! “Thank you so much for voting.” Now, maybe this person was just trying to be pleasant or magnanimous, but I couldn’t help but think, are “thanks” really what are needed? Throughout history, around the globe, voting has been viewed as a sacred, much fought-for privilege. Can we ever forget the newspaper images of long-denied voters, among them, first-time women voters in several Middle Eastern countries known for voter suppression, proudly displaying their ink-stained forefinger indicating that they had voted. Some even paid the price for such a display, with the chopping off of that finger by government opposition forces. Yet, in America, where voting––albeit imperfect––is considered a right and not a privilege, we have to find ways to persuade people to go to the polls. In New York, our new attempts at increasing voter turnout also led to new voter excuses. “I didn’t know about the June Primary.” “I don’t understand that new Rank Choice system.” “I tried to vote early but it wasn’t my usual polling place, so I gave up.” For others, the excuse was simply, “It was raining.” It troubles me to think we need more voting enticements as much as we need better, more equitable voting laws. Consider the strategy used in Australia, where voting is compulsory and failure to do so results in a monetary penalty, but where voter turnout is typically over 90%! Here, this solution would probably result in protests and lawsuits against “forced voting.” So, the question remains: How do we elect the leaders we really want? How can we achieve a truly representative government that is not just trendy and, although seemingly attempting to be more inclusive, focuses on issues and manipulate the voting process that games the system and winds up excluding me? New York City’s recent “experiment” saw more than 300 candidates vie for the City Council and a huge number of candidates bidding for top-of-the-ticket spots. With millions of dollars spent, thousands of campaign workers and volunteers, huge labor support and a pandemic year of candidates braving it to beg for votes––it’s mind boggling to think how a candidate can get only 2,000 votes. No voting innovation or voter rights law can adequately get people to the polls. Something more is needed. We hear and read so much about our country being like no other. America’s democracy, despite its flaws, inequalities, and injustices, basically stands for great principles for the greater good. This country’s Founding Fathers set up the concept in the opening line of our Constitution with the words, “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union,” yet nowhere in that document is the notion that while voting may be considered our right, it is also our obligation. It’s our duty––school children should be taught it, young adults as they are filling out paperwork for a driver’s license should be given voter forms as well and for other segments of our population, like our union brothers and sisters, the message that needs to be hammered home is: When you vote, you win.
Gregory Floyd is president, Teamsters Local 237 and vice president at-large on the general board of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.