An Independent Bronx: NYC’s silent voting population

Ask anyone on the street which state is the most progressive in the U.S., and New York will undoubtedly be among the top answers. However, the Empire State has long been under fire for its regressive voting laws that bar accessibility to its democratic processes.

New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice publicly lambasted the state’s election laws, contrasting the reality for NY voters with the state’s “supposed” reputation as progressive. Counsel for the Center even asserted that New York is disenfranchising its citizens de jure.

And the evidence is real — until 2018, New York’s voting system was counted as the worst in the U.S. Its laws were held up as examples of and justification for additional restrictions on voting participation sought by other, explicitly conservative states. By 2019, however, it seemed that the State’s legislature had adequately responded to this criticism and had put its bad reputation to bed.

Today, New York offers early voting, expanded access to the polls, and allows 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register. As voters across the state have enjoyed expanded access to the ballot, New York City has taken the effort to enforce freer, fairer elections even further.

The NYC Campaign Finance Board’s 2020 Voter Analysis Report detailed the city’s progressive accomplishments in the electoral realm. The most touted analytic method in the report was a longitudinal study of voting behavior that assigned each of over 4 million registered voters a participation score based on metrics from all 2008–2018 elections.

The purpose of this study was to characterize and understand voting patterns in New York City. Such data would support bureaucratic efforts to tailor the current improvements to the specific needs of city residents.

The underlying questions asked in the study were:

Who is voting?
Who isn’t voting?
How can we improve access to the ballot for eligible voters?

The analysis does lay the groundwork for informing local government and community organizers on the answers to those questions. Yet, electoral participation across the city still leaves much to be desired. While New York State has removed many of the administrative barriers from the ballot box, in New York City, the issue of encouraging eligible voters to take advantage of the freer pathway to the polls remains an open matter.

Negative influences on voting in NYC included geography (voters living in the Bronx had the lowest participation score across all boroughs) and age (younger voters were less likely to vote than older voters).

However, the report’s top negative finding was the relationship between blank party affiliation and average voting participation score. This means that independent voters were some of the least likely to vote regardless of age, borough, or prior eligibility.

2019–2020 Voter Analysis Report, page 6

As a young, independent voter with roots in South Brooklyn, I personally found these risk factors troubling. For one, independent voters are the second largest cohort in New York City, after Democrats. Their preferences, whether collective or dispersive, affect not only New York City, but they also have significant implications for state and regional politics.

I wanted to find out more about this large group of nonvoting registered voters. So — I took a look at the data used in the Voter Analysis Report: a 4 million-row spreadsheet including nonconfidential information on every registered voter in New York. Paired down to reflect on those without party affiliation, the dataset represented the information of just over 800,000 voters.

I decided to look at the unweighted electoral participation score, which would treat every voter equally regardless of the number of elections they have historical been eligible to vote in. Using this score, I looked generally at independent voter participation across generation groups and city boroughs. The aim of this exploration was to determine if there were any other variables that affected independent voter turnout — whether they be age, location in the city, etc.

Figure 1: Voter participation by generation across all elections 2008–2018

For the most part, my findings on voter behavior by age reflected those in the Bureau’s Voter Analysis Report. As shown in figure 1, the Baby Boomer generation was the most electorally active of NYC’s independent voters. This corresponds with the Report’s assertion that participation for voters of all affiliations increased for those over the age of 50. For voters of younger generations, participation was staggered — Millennials (age 24–39) tended to vote with more frequency than Generation X (age 40–54), and Generation X more than Generation Z (age 23 and under). Although, these margins are quite small and proved inconsistent across election years.

Figure 2: Voter participation across all elections 2008–2018 by borough

Regarding geographic location of the city’s voters, my findings also compared to those in the Report. In figure 2, independent voter participation was highest in Manhattan and lowest in the Bronx, with Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island coming in with middling scores.

For New Yorkers, these stats are likely unsurprising. Residents of Manhattan’s higher-rent neighborhoods have historically dominated the political realm. By contrast, the Bronx, and more specifically the South Bronx, has sported dismal voter turnout. The NYC Campaign Finance Board previously linked this disconnect to low income, low educational attainment, and housing instability. However, the Bronx has a more complicated story to tell in terms of its relationship with political engagement.

“People here have their own opinions. They have their agendas, their worries,” said Randy Arzu, a Bronx resident, “Politicians have to come out and introduce themselves, talk to us to understand that.**

In this borough, as with many places across the U.S., some voters feel excluded from the workings of America’s political machine. According to the Bureau’s Analysis, independent voters and Bronx resident voters largely share this feeling.

However, as I dug a little deeper into voter turnout by year, the data began to paint another picture. Figure 3 shows the independent voter participation scores of each borough during the 2008 presidential election. These numbers, although inflated, reflect a similar geographic distribution of turnout.

Figure 3: Voter participation in 2012 Presidential Election by borough

But something different happened in 2012.

Figure 4: Voter participation in 2012 Presidential Election by borough

Overall, independent voter participation for the 2012 election dropped compared to 2008. Manhattan fell over 10 percentage points, with other boroughs dropping 5–7%. The Bronx independents are the only contingency in 2012 that didn’t just hold fast to their inflated turnout, but they actually increased average participation (figure 4).

And in 2016? Bronx independents got out the vote in even higher numbers (figure 5).

Figure 5: Voter participation in 2016 Presidential Election by borough

While there is no way of knowing from this dataset whom the Bronx independents supported, we know from national polls that over 91% of the borough voted for Obama in 2012, and over 88% voted for Clinton in 2016. Regardless, the message of high independent turnout is clear: in 2012 and 2016, these voters were energized. Something about these election years, be it support of one candidate or disdain for another, caused this cohort of voters to defy expectations. As a next step in my analysis, I want to go a level deeper, looking not just at boroughs but at election districts and census areas — geographic areas that can more easily be characterized with resident demographic data.

The departure of Bronx independents from standard voting behavior in these two presidential election embodies one of the most difficult questions to answer for governments, campaigns, and community organizers: why do people vote?

In our standard answers, we often cite metrics such as socioeconomic status, demographics, geography, and history — all important aspects of voter identity that combine to produce a complex picture of voter behavior.

And yet the story is incomplete.

People vote when they feel connected to the results of the election — they vote in assent and dissent, in support and protest of the conditions imparted to them by their governance. People vote when politics makes them feel something beyond apathy — when they feel hopeful, angry, excited, scared.

In the 2012 and 2016 federal elections, Bronx independents believed, on some level, that their opinions mattered and that casting their ballots would make a difference in their lives. That said, for the general population of voters in the Bronx, these elections were business-as-usual. Voter participation remained low and stayed low for this and subsequent elections.

“People feel like their vote doesn’t count here,” said Wayne James, who lives in the South Bronx’s 50/84 election district.** Here, James highlights a common viewpoint held by this country’s neglected and disenfranchised, one that is reflected in low turnout for elections of various scales, all across the country, every year. Yet, every once in a while, a surge of voters pushes back against doubt and indifference and asserts their right to participate in the democratic process.

As we head toward one of the most highly anticipated presidential elections of modern history, Americans will cast their votes with a variety of emotions. No one can say with any degree of certainty in what state our nation will be after November 3rd. All we can do is attempt to make our preferences and our voices heard.

All we can do is take a page out of the Bronx independent’s book — and vote.

For research methods and R code:



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