I was one of the 9 percent of eligible Democratic voters who recently went to my local polling place in September to cast my vote in the gubernatorial primary. I arrived at 8:59 p.m., just one minute before the deadline. I had to run to get there just before the doors closed.
Right next to me, also out of breath, was a neighbor and parent of one of my daughter's former classmates. "I had to come and vote only to show Albany that I care about what's going on up there," he said, trying to explain his fierce urgency to make it in time.
We both knew the likely outcome that night, the polling station is a few blocks from our building, and we're both busy dads who had just come home after a long day of work. The brief time we spent voting (there was no line, of course) was time spent away from our children and from unwinding from work.
I thought about this that night and I think about it now, in mid-October, with a general election just two weeks away. In Manhattan, where I live, the turnout in early November will likely be light, too, because the four statewide races will likely be won easily by the Democratic candidate and there are no contested assembly or senate races in my district.
It's too bad, because it's incredibly interesting and exciting to follow and monitor a well-run and contested political race like we had last year for Mayor (at least in the Democratic and Republican primaries) and a few years ago for President.
New York Statewide races or federal campaigns, legislative or congressional, are rarely competitive and our citizenry and our system is worse off as a result. We don't get the benefit of heated debates, media coverage of the hot issues and a general buzz in the air that voting for your elected leader really matters in your life and for the future of your city or district.
There are a number of reasons for this anti-competitive trend.
Foremost is that New York State as a whole is becoming heavily Blue and Republicans running statewide have little chance to win given the changing demographics. Then, there is the increasing power of incumbency; in New York State, you are more likely to leave office in handcuffs than by being beaten at the ballot box these days. And then, of course, there is the corrosive influence of large campaign donations and SuperPacs that try to influence the outcomes of elections.
Ironically, there are two very competitive macro-campaigns going on both in New York State and on the federal level: the fight for control of the New York State Senate and the ultra-competitive battle for control of the U.S. Senate. In both cases, it now appears that the Republican Party is likely to gain control -- in New York, this will slow down the rapid progressive shift in policies that have gained momentum since Mayor Bill deBlasio took office in January; nationally, a Republican Senate added to a Republican Congress means that President Obama's rapidly graying hair will only accelerate in his final two lame-duck years in office.
But why is voting -- which our ancestors fought a very bloody revolution over almost two and a half centuries ago - such a cumbersome task and why do so few eligible voters take advantage of this right? In some developing countries, where democracy has just taken hold, voting rates can top 60-70 percent of the eligible population; in New York, one of the largest states in the oldest democracy in the world, we are not likely to see elections where more than one in five (or 20 percent) of eligible voters head to their local polling place on Election Day.
Much of the problem is because we use eighteenth century technology in a twenty-first century world. Why in an age where I can text my cousin half the way around the world instantaneously or when I can order almost anything I want delivered within four hours, must we suffer with voting booths that look like they were invented before Theodore Roosevelt was born?
The cynic in me thinks that progress is slow in electoral technology because the status quo benefits the current political class; depressed turnout helps incumbents and for some reason we are more risk averse when it comes to wiring election booths than we are in wiring banks. If I can pay bills online or wire large sums of money securely, then surely my vote can be safely and securely delivered from my smartphone or office computer.
Can you imagine how much turnout will spike if we can vote for our leaders from our office desks or from our smartphones?
And perhaps more importantly, wouldn't the playing field for running for office be leveled considerably if each candidate has the same technological outlet to convey their ideas and background and vision to voters? If we said to candidates, here is a database of all the email addresses of all registered voters in your district/city/state: now go and tell them in texts and videos why they should vote for you. That would essentially eliminate the need for big money and campaign donations that sometimes masquerade as deposits in the favor bank.
But, alas, these lofty ideas are perhaps too futuristic and idealistic to be feasible in the near future. But we can dream, can't we?
Tom Allon, the president of City & State, NY, was the Liberal Party-backed candidate for Mayor in 2012. Questions or comments: firstname.lastname@example.org