A crisis of urban democracy | Columns

For the first time in modern political history, fewer residents of the city of Rochester voted in the November general election than in the primary. In the interest of voter empowerment, democratic legitimacy and a broadly representative and functional local government, we must take steps to ensure that this does not happen again.

There are solutions to low urban participation that have proven effective in cities and states that have recognized the problem as a crisis and have taken steps to address it. And it’s a crisis.

Rochester Mayor Malik Evans was effectively chosen by 12% of the city’s voters, whose primary ballots propelled him to the general election, where he faced no opponents. Meanwhile, city council and school board candidates who won their primary faced symbolic opposition in the November ballot. About 800 fewer municipal voters turned out in November compared to the June primary. The result was that only 18% of the city’s voters cast ballots in the general election, with some areas of the city registering less than 10% turnout.

With registered Democrats outnumbering Republicans nearly seven to one in the city, the primary election is the de facto election in this one-party city. Voters choose who will occupy positions such as mayor, city council, school board and city court in primary elections. Eight seats in the Monroe County Legislature primarily based in the city are also decided in primary contests. The challenges of competitive general elections are rare: even when there are candidates on electoral lists other than the Democratic Party, they receive a low share of the vote and struggle to raise funds. Voters correctly understand that big decisions have already been made by the time the general election goes on, creating the turnout issues we’ve seen this year.

Even many registered Democrats are effectively disenfranchised because candidates typically spend resources communicating only with frequent primary voters, creating a reinforcing loop. In the general election, we saw demographic disparities in turnout.The whiter and wealthier 24th Legislative District of Monroe County had more than five times as many voters as the 22nd Legislative District of Monroe County, a high-need black and brown majority district. Indeed, our municipal elections have an intertwined issue of legitimacy and diversity.

Thanks to the many other cities that have different voting systems in place, we know how to fix our local democracy, passing reforms that allow and encourage more voters to participate.


“There is no Democratic or Republican way to pick up trash,” New York Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia said.

Yet municipal elections in New York’s largest cities continue to be partisan, meaning candidates run along party lines. If more than one member of the same political party is running, a primary election determines which party’s candidate appears on the November ballot.

This is a stark contrast to what is happening in most other American cities. More than three quarters of all municipalities in the United States, hold non-partisan elections in which candidates do not run along party lines. These municipalities include major cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and Dallas. All voters, regardless of their party, can participate.

Some reformers fear that non-partisan elections will discourage turnout and create confusion, especially among voters of color, by removing partisan labels that have historically helped voters make decisions. As an alternative, Rochester could switch to a runoff system.

Changing our elections to a trickle-down system would have a similar effect. In a second round system, there are two elections, usually still referred to as primary and general. Instead of putting forward one candidate per political party and restricting votes to registered members of specific parties, however, any registered voter can vote for any candidate in the first round, and the first two candidates go on to the general election, independently. of their party.

Boston’s recent mayoral election used a non-partisan trickle-down system. A preliminary election in September sent the two main voters to face off on election day in November.

Consider how many voters are excluded from the local representative selection process because they cannot vote in a primary. The number of municipal voters not affiliated with a party has increased by 41% over the past decade. Unaffiliated voters now represent one in five voters in the city. Non-partisan elections would give this growing group of voters the chance to participate.

With non-partisan elections and a runoff, each election could feature an ideologically meaningful and potentially competitive general election. With every general election having real meaning, voters have choices beyond rubber stamp approval of candidates already selected in partisan primaries.


There are other options to improve voter turnout which are practices in towns and cities across the country.

“Open primaries,” where voters can vote in a partisan primary without being registered with a specific party, would give all voters a chance to weigh in on partisan candidates.

Another idea is to reconsider the timing of local elections and make sure they coincide with higher-stakes contests. Some years, like 2021, there are only local races at the polls. Study suggests moving local elections to coincide with presidential elections leads to an 18.5 percentage point increase in turnout. At the same time, the local elections which coincide with the mid-terms of November benefit from an increase of almost 9 points of participation on average.

Finally, we can consider the physical act of voting and accessing a ballot.Research shows that universal postal voting has a positive impact on overall turnout, with no clear benefits for one political party or another.

The structural problems of local democracy are the result of the choices we have made about how and when the citizens of Rochester can participate in the electoral process. If the political will is there, we can choose a different path for the future that will better reflect and represent the people of Rochester.

Rachel Barnhart is a Democrat representing the 21st District of the Monroe County Legislature. Joseph Burgess is Data Curator at the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell University, and an independent expert and consultant on local government issues.

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