Testimony of Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. to the New York City Charter Revision Commission
Once again, I want to welcome this Charter Revision Commission to the Bronx and thank you for taking the time to listen to the concerns of our constituents on this very important matter.
Increasing voter participation is of the utmost importance, as voting represents the first step in active participation in the civic life of our community and breathes life into our democracy. Yet for years, we have suffered declines in voting in City, state and federal elections which mirrors a nation-wide decline in voter turnout since 1960.
A threshold question is “why has voter participation been decreasing?” Studies have attributed the decline in voter turnout to declines in voter mobilization efforts and political and campaign involvement, increasing political cynicism and distrust of government and the distractions of modern day life.
A growing consensus of thought is that to affect a significant increase in voter participation, new and innovative approaches should be tested and adopted, approaches which would require changes to state law.
First, the state should adopt early voting that includes weekend voting. States that have adopted early voting have registered significant gains in voter participation.
The state should also adopt mail-in voting for all registered voters, not just absentee voters. This will no doubt increase voting participation, particularly for older voters.
With proper processes to prevent voter fraud, the state should adopt same-day registration, an approach that everyone agrees will increase voter turnout.
Internet voting, which some analysts believe would revolutionize the voting process, should also be explored as an option.
An approach noticeably absent from the consensus on how to increase voter participation is non-partisan elections. In fact, there is a raging debate as whether non-partisan elections increase or actually decrease voter turnout. Based on this fact alone, I believe non-partisan elections should not be considered by this Commission.
And there are other, more pressing reasons why this Commission should reject the call to put non-partisan elections on the ballot.
First, the voters of this city defeated non-partisan elections by a two-to-one margin in a 2003 referendum. Why is the Commission revisiting this now when the measure was so soundly defeated just seven years ago?
Second, partisan elections take away the right of people organized as a political party to choose their own candidates. I am a Democrat and want to be able to choose candidates at election that agree with the goals of my party without the Republican Party or the Independence Party covertly influencing the election. Registered Democrats should not be punished because the messages of other political parties don’t resonate with the voters.
Third, if approved at referendum, partisan elections arguably could violate the Voting Rights Act and be subject to protracted legal rangling in the courts, and I am confident, will be declared unconstitutional for elections in the City.
Fourth, non-partisan elections also make it easier for candidates with unlimited financial resources to monopolize and kidnap the electoral process for citywide offices. The chances of candidates forced to raise political contributions against super-rich candidates will be significantly diminished.
Fifth, there has been no groundswell of public support presented before this Commission to put non-partisan elections up for referendum. Support for non-partisan elections presented to this Commission has come primarily from officials and supporters of the Independence Party for reasons obvious to many people and the press. I believe even the most crude survey of public opinion will show that the public does not want non-partisan elections and that is why the measure failed in the past.
Finally, if this Commission approves non-partisan elections for a referendum item this November, it will increase the cynicism and distrust of public officials which is the main reason for declines in voter participation. It will immeasurably support the perception that the Commission is following the predetermined orders of the Mayor to hurry the questions of term limits and non-partisan elections to the ballot.
As I have stated, there are a number of promising strategies to improve voter turnout. Non-partisan elections are not one of them, and I hope this Commission will not waste any more of its time on the topic.
Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to testify.