Bill de Blasio and the vanishing voter

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As a lackluster mayoral campaign sputters to an end — with scant enthusiasm for de Blasio, Malliotakis or Dietl — fears abound that the city’s incredible shrinking electoral turnout could hit new lows on November 7


  • Mayor Bill de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray host Gracie Mansion Halloween dressed at Clark Kent and Wonder Woman on Friday, October 27. Photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

  • NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio rides the Westbound M23 Select Bus Service and delivers remarks about improving bus service on Friday October, 20. Photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photography Office

Once upon a time, most New Yorkers loved to vote. Exercising the franchise was a sacred rite of passage for immigrants and new arrivals. It was a civic, moral and even social obligation for citizens of long-standing, too. Not anymore.

Sadly, en masse voting is a relic of the past. And the evidence can be found in the campaigns of Bill de Blasio. Naturally, the diminution of the ballot box long pre-dates the incumbent mayor. But it hit record lows on his watch.

In the 2013 mayoral race, barely one million of the city’s 4.2 million registered voters showed up as the then-public advocate battled the then-former MTA boss Joe Lhota. In his triumph, de Blasio achieved a dubious honor: a 24 percent turnout, the most abysmal in city history.

Flash forward four years. On September 12, the mayor clobbered Sal Albanese by a 74 percent-to-16 percent margin in the Democratic mayoral primary, hailing a “resounding victory,” which indeed it was. What he didn’t say: Only 14 percent of Democrats trekked to the polls.

Next up is the general election, which always draws more voters than a party primary. But don’t expect long lines on November 7 either. De Blasio posts mediocre favorable and job-approval ratings. His likability is low. That hardly adds up to a stampede.

His two foes aren’t exactly voter magnets either. In fact, Republican Nicole Malliotakis and independent Bo Dietl, running on the “Dump the Mayor” line, are so little known that a recent Quinnipiac poll found 75 percent of voters didn’t know enough about them to form an opinion.

Still, the mayor’s opponents got a big boost last week. Not from anything they did. But from tawdry new pay-to-play allegations that surfaced against de Blasio, who had dodged a near-death experience back in March when prosecutors announced he’d face no criminal charges in twin federal and state probes of his fundraising practices.

Those storm clouds never dissipated, and in testimony on October 26 in a corruption trial in U.S. District Court in Foley Square, ex-donor-cum-felon Jona Rechnitz testified he bought favors, government action and access from the mayor, whose personal cell phone he often called.

Will it make a difference in the race? Unlikely. Will it further depress turnout? Almost certainly.

As a lopsided favorite, de Blasio is still expected to romp to a reelection landslide. So his less enthusiastic backers will stay home, believing they’re not needed. Faced with crushing odds and a looming blowout, so, too, will many never-de Blasioers.

The bottom line as an underwhelming, dispiriting race limps to the end: More voters will sit on their hands. Turnout could bottom out anew. A depressing new record below 24 percent could be set.

“Certainly, it’s a good bet that the rate could go lower than it was four years ago,” said Democratic political consultant George Arzt, who served as Mayor Ed Koch’s third-term press secretary in the late 1980s. “People have lost confidence in politics.”

He cited a concatenation of factors. A weak competitive field. A sitting mayor 40 points ahead in the polls. Name recognition for Malliotakis so poor that “only people on Staten Island and Bay Ridge know her.” A GOP that’s largely uncompetitive.

“No one knows there’s an election, there’s almost no advertising, it’s not bitterly fought, and you just don’t see posters or other evidence out there,” Arzt added.

How things have changed. Consider the general election of 1953.

Then-Manhattan Borough President Robert F. Wagner Jr., son of a great senator with the same name, had unseated incumbent Mayor Vincent Impellitteri in the Democratic primary and now faced Republican Harold Riegelman, the city postmaster, and Liberal Rudolph Halley, the City Council president.

It was the closest the city ever came to European-style participatory suffrage. Roughly 2.2 million ballots were cast — a tally more than twice as great as in de Blasio’s 2013 race. An astronomical 93 percent of the electorate turned out, a record that’s never been surpassed.

Wagner, who won handily, went on to serve three terms.

Why did turnout go into a tailspin? Social disorder and political turmoil in the 1960s kept many voters at home, but the civil rights movement, minority empowerment and a white backlash brought others to the polls, so for a time, the vote count was high and stable.

But a steep fall-off began in the 1970s, fueled by a fiscal crisis and the city’s near-bankruptcy, and accelerated in the 1980s, a decade that saw recession, white flight, economic dislocation and a stock market crash.

The 1993 election, in which law-and-order challenger Rudy Giuliani prevailed in a racially tinged rematch against incumbent David Dinkins, the city’s first African-American mayor, brought 57 percent of voters to the polls. It was the last time in a quarter-century that electoral turnout in a mayoral race topped 50 percent.

In the past, the political machinery functioned well, says Democratic political strategist Hank Sheinkopf, who worked on Mark Green’s 2001 mayoral bid and cut his teeth on Herman Badillo’s 1969 race.

“Patronage oiled the political machines to turn out voters in a city where ethnic loyalty and getting your garbage picked up and your streets policed were part of the same equation,” he said.

“Vote, you get the goodies. That’s the old days. Don’t vote, you still get the goodies. That is today’s mantra. There is no sanction, and thus, no fear,” Sheinkopf added.

Indeed, for decades, the captains of Tammany Hall, whose power began to fade in the 1960s, would knock on doors and adeptly bring out the vote, Arzt said.

Of course, there was a downside. “You also had repeat voters in the old days,” he added.

It wasn’t only the fall of the clubhouse that shriveled the vote. The decline of church and family and even local haunts that once displayed campaign posters — the corner bodega, the candy store — also played a role. So did longer work hours and the rise of e-distractions.

But there’s one more factor: A lack of political courage. Back in the winter, when it seemed then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara was poised to indict de Blasio, a handful of Democratic A-listers were readying campaigns to unseat him.

But Comptroller Scott Stringer, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries — who would have enlivened the race, dispatching more citizens to the polls — all retreated when the mayor evaded legal peril.

You can thank them for de Blasio’s inevitable coronation. Thank them, too, for the popular vote drop-off sure to accompany it.

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