In a democracy, decisions are made by people who show up.
But in New York City, anemic turnout on Election Day 2017—the lowest since women got the vote here almost exactly 100 years ago—dissed the idea that if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. In contrast, the commonwealth of Virginia saw massive turnout in a hotly contested governor’s race.
The essential difference isn’t the size of their respective citizens’ civic muscles but a cautionary tale about the dangers that come with life in an essentially one-party town.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio managed to win 66 percent of the vote in his reelection. This might look impressive on the surface until you consider that he won only 726,000 votes in a city of more than 8 million that is six-to-one Democratic. Only 24 percent of registered voters in New York bothered to turn out. That's a record low—a far cry from the 40 percent when Rudy Giuliani won big in his bid (which I worked on) for a second term or the 41 percent who showed up two months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, when Mike Bloomberg narrowly beat Mark Green, solidifying 20 years of Republican and independent mayoral rule that drove New York City’s resurgence.
De Blasio has been an uninspiring and largely unpopular play-to-the-base mayor, struggling to get above 50 percent job approval. But crime has stayed down thanks to the NYPD and the economy has hummed along. While de Blasio keeps slipping on banana peels in his many attempts to cast himself as the mayor of progressive America, Donald Trump's election a year ago and the reactionary cast of today’s Republican Party virtually guaranteed that he would be reelected in the absence of a narrowly missed indictment.
But in the same cycle, Virginia saw 47 percent turnout—almost twice New York City’s number. Are Virginians more civic-minded than New Yorkers? Of course not, but there was a competitive general election because the Old Dominion remains essentially a swing state.
It was not always this way. No Democrat won Virginia in a presidential campaign between LBJ and Barack Obama, but Mark Warner—a tech executive turned governor turned senator—reset the table by re-centering the Democratic Party, making it more pragmatic and business-friendly rather than obsessed with identity politics and its respective constituencies.
Since Mark Warner, four out of five Virginia governors have been Democrats, including Hillary Clinton’s running mate and current Sen. Tim Kaine. Demographic changes have aided this red-to-purple shift, but the simple fact is that competitive general elections drive high turnout. Crucially, centrists made up 42 percent of the Virginia electorate this year and Democrat Ralph Northam won them by a two-to-one margin. Likewise, youth-voter turnout increased from 17 percent in 2009 to 34 percent in 2017.
On the flip side, when one party has ceased to function as a viable alternative in a major city or state, it functionally deprives voters of any real choice, so that many simply decide not to choose at all.
The preponderance of one-party politics in our polarized red-state/blue state reality depresses voter engagement and acts as a long-term invitation to cronyism and corruption. As the parties become dominated by the extremes and special-interest activist groups, one-party rule becomes a disincentive for bright and ambitious people to get involved in politics, reducing it to a clubby spectator sport in which people participate with their wallets rather than at the ballot box.
That’s not just a recipe for voter disengagement; it’s a recipe for an apathetic democracy and long-term civic disaster.