The political buzz is getting louder, as candidates make their final campaign appeal ahead of the June 22 primary election.

But it seems some voters aren’t listening.

Wesley Worrell, a retired East New York resident, knew the names of two top-tier mayoral candidates, but couldn’t name any of the others in the crowded field. 

“A lot of ads are on TV now, and I’ve been getting a bunch of brochures in the mail lately,” Worrell told BK Reader. “But I haven’t really been paying much attention.”  

With early voting scheduled to begin on June 12, Worrell is far from alone when it comes to not being fully engaged in the upcoming primary election.

Historically low turnout

In on-the-street interviews with potential voters, few could identify candidates for mayor, borough president, or in their council district race.

In Brownsville, Claudia Richardson decided months ago which mayoral candidate will get her vote.

“Eric Adams came to speak at my church before COVID, and I liked what he had to say,” Richardson, a health care worker, told BK Reader, admitting that she didn’t know the names or platforms of the other candidates.

Although it’s far-reaching to draw conclusions about voter engagement based on several interviews, data shows that New Yorkers have a poor voter participation record.

As The New York Times has noted, only 12% of eligible voters cast a ballot in the 2017 mayoral primaries, and only 26% bothered to vote for mayor in the general election that year.

Apparently, voter enthusiasm dissipated from the 2020 presidential election when there was significantly high voter participation in Brooklyn.

‘Elections aren’t the centerpiece of life’

However, the November election was a “once in a generation election” and doesn’t necessarily indicate a lack of interest in the primary races this year, Daniel Altschuler, co-executive director of Make The Road Action, told BK Reader.

Make the Road Action, an immigrant rights group, has conducted door-to-door canvassing, phone calls, and texting to thousands of voters in Bushwick and East New York, concentrating its efforts in Council District 37, which also includes a portion of Brownsville.

Altschuler said he and his team were finding varying levels of voter information at this point.

“There are some people who are very plugged in,” he said. “The broader observation is that many people are just now starting to plug into the races. For most people elections aren’t the centerpiece of their life.”

Make the Road Act team conducting voter education in Bushwick and East New York. Photo: Provided.

On June 5, his team talked with several hundred voters in Bushwick, Altschuler said.

“We talked to them primarily about City Council (the organization endorsed Sandy Nurse). We found that there are some who were plugged into the mayor’s race but not the down-ballot races,” he explained.

“So, our work is to educate them on some of the other races and which candidates stand with them on their core values.”

Underinvestment, distrust are issues

Meanwhile, city officials have a major voter education drive underway to inform people about the new ranked-choice voting system.

In April, Mayor Bill de Blasio and DemocracyNYC announced a $15 million voter education campaign, which includes advertising and direct outreach through faith-based and community organizations.

There are also outside influences on voter information. The City newspaper explained how “monied outsiders” use independent expenditures on behalf of their favorite candidate to flood certain neighborhoods with flyers, ads, and branded merchandise.

In low-come communities of color, where voter engagement tends to be low, candidates often don’t invest campaign resources where they don’t expect high voter turnout.

One of the keys to motivating people to cast a ballot involves talking with them about the issues they care about and connecting the election to those issues, Altschuler explained.

The three top issues for voters in the 37th District are affordable housing, public school funding, and a public safety strategy focused on investing in programs for young people instead of over-policing.

There’s an underlying barrier in some neighborhoods to increasing voter engagement.

“To be honest, there is a lot of distrust of politicians in poor communities of color where people feel like they’ve been left behind,” he said.

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Nigel Roberts

Nigel Roberts is a New York-based, award-winning freelance journalist. During his career, Nigel has written for several newspapers and magazines. He has extensive experience covering politics and was a...

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