If We Want to Strengthen Democracy, Let's Start in Our Back Yard

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

If We Want to Strengthen Democracy, Let's Start in Our Back Yard
By: Martha King, Senior Program Officer, The Charles H. Revson Foundation and Co-Chair, GoVoteNYC, Jamie Rubin, Co-Chair, GoVoteNYC, and Maria Torres-Springer, Vice President, US Programs, Ford Foundation and Co-Chair, GoVoteNYC

As New York City heads into its most consequential local elections in a generation, we face a decades-long decline in democratic participation. One in four registered New Yorkers voted in each of the last three mayoral elections. The last time that at least half of all registered voters chose our mayor was in 1993. And the future is not looking bright: only 14% of voters under age 30 participated in our last mayoral election. These statistics are especially alarming given that voter turnout is even worse for primaries and lower-profile elections and because these dismal citywide figures also conceal deep participation disparities by neighborhood, income and education level, ethnicity, and race.  Compounding this, we face new hurdles as the city continues to battle the pandemic and uses ranked-choice voting for the first time. 

Perhaps these numbers should not surprise us, considering the daunting challenges to voter participation in New York. After the state saw some of the lowest turnouts nationally in the 2016 presidential and 2018 midterm elections, electoral experts called New York’s voting system the worst in the country, noting it is disenfranchising its citizens. MIT’s Elections Performance Index ranks New York 49th among US states. New York rejects voter registrations and provisional ballots at rates well above the national average. The administration of absentee voting here has been plagued with issues that undermine the goal of ensuring more voters can participate. Our state and city boards of elections have been at the center of multiple recent scandals, including illegally removing about 200,000 New Yorkers from voter rolls, throwing out 20% of absentee ballots based on technicalities, and sending out 100,000 faulty absentee ballots to residents

To address these problems head-on, 11 NYC-based donors established GoVoteNYC, a new donor collaborative housed at the New York Community Trust. We are supporting nonpartisan efforts to increase voter participation and narrow participation gaps across NYC’s communities. We want NYC to be a voter-friendly city with a fair and barrier-free electoral system. We know our local government will be more representative, responsive, and accountable when all voices are heard in our central democratic process—voting. 

GoVoteNYC will leverage New Yorkers’ 2020 civic energy, build on voter engagement lessons from around the country and the recent electoral system reforms won by NY advocates and nonprofits, and nurture the talent and imagination of the nonprofit sector. We will support experimentation and different strategies, including organizing, mobilization through human services, creative partnerships and digital content, policy reforms, and civic participation between election cycles. With support for capacity and coordination, trusted nonprofits who are already connected to residents and neighborhood issues can reach New Yorkers who have not voted in the past and voters typically overlooked in the democratic process. This is how we can build a robust nonpartisan infrastructure to support consistently high NYC voter participation in 2021 and in the long term. 

GoVoteNYC is inclusive and flexible, combining pooled funding and independent aligned giving to meet the challenges our city faces to full voter participation. Our donors are diverse in structure (including individuals, families, and institutions) and areas of focus – ranging from breaking the cycles of mass incarceration and homelessness to supporting the arts sector. But we are all committed to building a more vibrant, strong, livable, and just city. We recognize what our colleagues wisely wrote here: neither philanthropy nor its grantees can make a lasting or systemic change on any issue without a functioning democracy and responsive government

One of our great privileges as members of Philanthropy New York is that NYC is our home, and we—plus our partners, neighbors, and communities—need a participation-fueled democracy here. It is time for more foundations to fund democracy, and we can start in our own backyard, recognizing that the local need is great and that any effective effort cannot be limited to election years. NYC will flourish when all New Yorkers are informed, engaged, and participating in our civic life and elections. The quality of NYC’s recovery and future depends upon it.

For more information about getting involved, please reach out to us or the collaborative’s director, Laura Hansen