The most important election result is that nobody cares. Voter turn-out in the democratic primary for the position of Queensborough President was 16%. That means that every primary voter had in fact six votes: one for him-/herself and five votes cast for absentee voters. Seen that way, “nobody cares” is an incorrect statement: around 80%-85% of people don’t care while the remaining 15%-20% of eligible voters care a lot and determine who will be in office for the next four years.
Why don’t people care?
People might not care because they don’t see the direct connection between the things that really annoy them and the person of the office holder who could be influential regarding these concerns. We don’t have any problems engaging parents in long conversations about the problematic water features in Gantry State Park but the same people don’t want to take 15 minutes out of their day to vote in a primary. Tons of e-mails have been flying around about the proposed dog run next to the new middle school building of P.S. 78. People have definitely invested a lot of time and energy regarding this issue but the connection doesn’t seem to be clear that the decision about the location of the dog run can be strongly influenced by our elected representatives.
Hundreds of parents are outraged that the elementary school of P.S. 78 in the Citylights Building still does not have an outdoor recess area. People are informed, engaged, and outraged. But they don’t seem to see the connection with their vote in a primary- or mayoral election. Systems that permit a problematic water feature or an indefinitely delayed outdoor recess area have been put in place by politicians. Future office holders might have the power to make these structures more parent- and child-friendly or cater to other interest groups instead. Why don’t people care? First answer: because they don’t see the connection between the closed playground at the corner of 48th Avenue and 5th Street and their vote in the primary election.
Another factor might be the different attitudes of different demographic groups towards partisan politics. Blue collar workers and union members -and I can say that as a former union member- have no reservations to discuss their interests in political races in the work place and social settings. Part of these discussions is to find out which party and which candidate will represent the interests best. Talking openly about political choices is part of the civic life and public identity of many blue collar- and service workers. It is certainly part of the identity of union members.
The college-educated professionals who dominate the gentrified areas of Long Island City might have a completely different attitude. Competition for grades, letters of recommendation, stipends, and promotions dominated my life in educational institutions and office politics in a large financial company I was working for. Confessing one’s political preferences or standing up against somebody with a different opinion creates conflict and might result in a bad grade by a professor, a less enthusiastic letter of recommendation, a missed promotion, or a lost customer. Talking about politics is considered bad style and only done hush-hush in a lowered voice if one is confidant that the other person shares one’s own position. The political taboo fosters an attitude of silence, and disengagement: if you are an aspiring lawyer on the partner track in a large firm you don’t want to alienate potential clients.
Why don’t people care? Another reason might be very simple: because they don’t make the time. If you are a parent who works as a professional in the legal, financial, medical or any other field you operate at a high stress level and are constantly short of time. All issues that don’t pertain in an urgent manner to kids, family, work, career, and making money are on the back burner or tuned out as “noise.”
Many folks get their newsfeed through the so-called “social” online media, blogs opposed to hard news, and in tweets of 140 characters instead of through traditional filters such as the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. That means that you are most likely better informed about a funny purple colored hamster running amok on a wheel in a golden cage after OD’ing on Red Bull than about the positions of the different candidates in the Democratic primary.
Why don’t people care? Because they don’t see the connection between a closed playground and the lacking outdoor recess area and their vote in a primary.
Why don’t people care? Because it has paid off during their educational- and professional career to appear apolitical and disinterested while it can be disadvantageous if one’s political preferences are known.
Why don’t people care? Because we are not French intellectuals debating the minutiae of the daily editions of four different newspapers in a Cafe near the Sorbonne in the early 1970′s
How do people vote?
The overwhelming majority of the 15%-20% of people who vote in the primaries don’t know the issues. The New York Times did an excellent job of comparing and contrasting the positions of all mayoral candidates about a variety of issues from Stop-and-Frisk to charter schools. But who has the time to read the Times in the age of Facebook and uplifting TED Talks? That means that many primary voters cast their vote based on different factors: was the candidate in my neighborhood and did I get to know his name, shake his hand, and see his or her face? Which candidate was endorsed by the party and by office holders I already know? Which candidate was endorsed by my union, rabbi, or church? Did community leaders come out to support a certain candidate?
How therefore do people vote? First, only 15%-20% of eligible voters participate in the primary. Second, a large number of these primary voters will base their decision on endorsements by unions, faith-based organizations, newspapers, office holders, community leaders, and the party. That means that the actual outcome -especially of primary elections- is determined by far fewer people than the 15%-20% of eligible voters who actually cast a ballot. How many people are there in Queens who call the shots? Maybe 50, if that.
That’s both bad and good news: the bad news is that people don’t care. The good news is that you can have a disproportionate influence as a voter, especially if you get involved, research the issues and candidates, and talk candidly about your opinions to your friends.