My mailbox is suddenly empty. Familiar public figures no longer bother to call. Although some candidates may hope that it’s only just begun, the local campaign season is indeed almost over. I count myself among the record-low 11 percent of voters who turned out on primary day, and among the 7 percent who turned up for the run-off. And what have I learned? Perhaps that politics, as one of the candidates for Public Advocate liked to say, is about “real results.” As catchy as it is redundant, the phrase forces one to offer actual analysis.
Why is it that so few voters turned out? Certainly there was a lack of action at the top of the ticket. But consider the race for the open seat vacated by the soon-to-be Public Advocate Bill De Blasio in Park Slope and Carroll Gardens. In addition to De Blasio’s bid for higher office, the local ticket featured several prominent local figures vying to represent the most politically engaged sections of the city. Nearly every Democratic door in the district was knocked on at least twice, and there was plenty of local media coverage. Yet over 10 percent fewer voters turned out this year as compared to 2001, the last time the seat was open. If apathy—or more likely, cynicism—toward local politics is growing in the Slope, it’s no doubt growing elsewhere.
For Mayor Bloomberg, the low turnout is a good sign, because as he said the day after the run-off, “I suspect what that means is that people are basically happy.” But the declining public participation is occurring precisely as the city’s problems are growing. The (official) unemployment rate is now over 10 percent, which is higher than the national rate and rising. And a declining economy portends major budget battles over the next year and beyond. With the stakes so high, where are the meaningful ideas and debate regarding the future direction of the city? Alas, I fear that I’ve only put forth some quick questions—but somebody had better start asking them, and soon.