Lessons New Yorkers Can Learn From Puerto Rico’s Voter Turnout

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Voter participation in the United States has stumbled along around 60 percent for years, consistently trailing other Western democracies. In New York, which has one of the country’s worst cases of voter apathy, it’s only getting worse. Total votes fell below 1.1 million in the 2013 mayoral race in New York City, which has a population of 8.4 million. The 2014 elections in the state stood out for a lackluster turnout of 28.8 percent, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo winning a second term with the lowest gubernatorial vote total since Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1930. The smattering of races across the state this fall, many of them lopsided or uncontested affairs, are unlikely to spur a rebound.
Facing such a dismal track record, some officials and experts are looking to the unlikely example of a neighbor that has long outperformed the United States: Puerto Rico.
“In Puerto Rico, where I grew up, the voter participation rates are definitely well above 70 percent,” New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said during an interview with City & State last month. “So what is it that other places are doing that elicit larger responses?”
The speaker offered one possibility: “One of the first things that obviously happens in Puerto Rico that we don’t do in the United States and not here in New York is the day is given to vote.”
Election Day is a national holiday in the commonwealth, which presumably makes it easier for residents to get to the polls – and promotes the celebratory fervor that traditionally accompanies voting on the island.
“There is a day off, which really centers on the importance of voting,” Mark-Viverito said. “It underscores the importance of people taking that moment to do their civic duty. And also there’s a whole culture around voting and elections in general on the island.”
Puerto Rico also puts much more of an emphasis on registering voters, rich and poor alike, offering substantial funding to parties for registration efforts. In New York and elsewhere in the U.S., outreach is largely focused on winning over reliable voters, not expanding the voter rolls.
“Even coming from Latino elected officials, they suffer from the same incentives or disincentives to mobilize or not mobilize larger segments of the electorate,” said Carlos Vargas-Ramos, a researcher at Hunter College’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies. “As you know, the system of running elections in the United States is very expensive. By and large, it falls on individual candidates as opposed to the institutions that are the political parties or the political clubs.”
The commonwealth also has only one major election every four years, making it easier for voters to remember when to show up. New York, in contrast, has a jumble of local, state and national races from year to year, often with separate primary dates, as well as the occasional special election.
Some differences, however, would not be easily adopted in the mainland United States. One distinctive aspect of the island’s elections is that they are far more competitive, especially compared with the cakewalks many Democratic candidates enjoy in left-leaning New York City. Even more unique is that the island’s elections are intertwined with the question of its status as a commonwealth under U.S. control and whether to stay the course or try to become the 51st state, or even declare independence.
“The three major political parties each represent major status options,” noted Angelo Falcón, co-founder and president of the National Institute for Latino Policy. “Right now you have the commonwealth party that’s in power, they’re going to be opposed by the statehood party, and there’s the independence party, which is a very minor party. So what happens is that somehow, also, another motivating factor is that every time there’s an election, there’s a whole discussion about the future status of this island. It’s kind of like the destiny of the island is at stake.”
Other factors behind the higher turnout in Puerto Rico are seen unfavorably, particularly the spoils system in which the ruling party controls a large number of patronage jobs. Reformers in New York long ago reduced patronage through various reforms, such as a strong civil service system. The island is also plagued by corruption, with such widespread abuse of power that Falcón said it “makes Albany look like an ethics wonderland.”
“When there’s a change in government, in the political party, it has major changes in terms of personnel, even affecting who runs the university,” Falcón said. “There’s a joke in Puerto Rico historically that if your political party lost power, you’re going to have trouble getting an ambulance because the ambulance driver is probably going to be from the other party – and they might not bother picking you up. That patronage really makes the stakes in the political process real.”
The side-by-side comparison of Puerto Rico and New York highlights another outcome that often surprises Americans who have an idealized view of the virtues of the democratic system in the U.S.: The many Puerto Ricans that have relocated to New York have among the lowest voting rates in the state.
“The rates of participation in Puerto Rico continue to be much higher in Puerto Rico than in the United States for the population as a whole,” Vargas-Ramos said, “and certainly for Puerto Ricans in the United States.”
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