In New York state, the primary election for state and local representatives is always held the second Tuesday of September, right after Labor Day and the start of the new school year. If you blink you could miss it, and many New Yorkers do.
In 2010, New York ranked last in the nation for voter turnout, with only 32 percent of the 13.4 million eligible voters actually exercising their constitutional right. New York City’s turnout last year hit a record low, with barely 22 percent of registered Democrats, and 12 percent of registered Republicans.
The situation is similar across the state. Take for example, Rochester, where the new mayor won by a margin of 5,000 votes, with only 23 percent voter turnout.
There are many reasons why people don’t make it to the polls, but there is something the state can do to make voting more convenient and cost effective: consolidate all primary elections into a single June date. It’s a simple solution to increase voter engagement and save the taxpayers money.
Currently, New Yorkers vote in as many as five elections a year: there are local elections for towns and villages in March, school board in May, federal elections in June, then again in September for state primaries, and finally in November for the general election.
Elections are expensive. It costs millions of dollars to keep the polls open, maintain the machines, and make sure every vote is counted. The bill can really add up in the event of a recount, which can drag on for weeks.
So why should New Yorkers continue to foot the bill? If we consolidate our elections into a single primary it would save the taxpayers an estimated $50 million.
A June primary would also increase public engagement by giving voters an immediate opportunity to hold their representatives accountable. The state legislative calendar runs from January to late June, at which point lawmakers return home to focus on matters in their districts.
By streamlining the primary date, legislative business would be fresh in voters’ minds, and there would be no confusion about when the election is being held. Not to mention it would give candidates a better opportunity to make their case to voters, who typically tune out during the summer months and only re-engage two weeks before the September primary.
There is another reason to move the primary to June. Members of the military serving overseas are currently disenfranchised from state elections by the short turnaround between the deadline for mailing in their ballots and Election Day. We don’t even give the women and men who keep us safe a voice in the democratic process. That has to change.
Voting should be accessible, easy and efficient. A single June primary is an important first step to counteract voter fatigue and kick the democratic process back into high gear.
Although opponents may argue that it’s not in the public interest for elected officials to campaign during the legislative session, the long and short-term benefits of a more transparent and user-friendly process is ultimately paramount.
What matters most is to empower every New Yorker to participate in good, open government, and participation begins at the polls.
Every New Yorker who is concerned about the waste of taxpayer dollars and who wants to ensure that they are fully exercising their right to vote should contact their state and local representatives to voice their support for a June primary.
*This Op-Ed, written by County Leader Keith L.T Wright and Susan Lerner, appeared on timesunion.com today, January 30th, 2014. Susan Lerner is executive director of Common Cause NY. Keith L.T. Wright is a state assemblyman who represents Harlem and serves as the co-chair of the state Democratic Party.