There’s No Excuse Not to Vote, West Siders Say

Melodie Bryant has volunteered writing postcards to voters and campaigning for politicians outside of her district. | Photo by Sam Bleiberg

BY SAM BLEIBERG | If the primary elections were any indication, New Yorkers are prepared to reverse the state’s trend of declining voter turnout with the upcoming midterms. Politically engaged citizens of all ages in Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen shared their motivations for voting with us, ahead of the general election on November 6.

Over the past several elections, New York has lagged in the bottom half of states in voter turnout. In the 2014 midterm elections, New York ranked 48th in turnout rate.

Democracy gathered major momentum with the September primary elections, in which turnout more than doubled from the 2014 gubernatorial primary race. Voters at the polls in September cited national politics as a force driving their decision to show up. If enthusiasm carriers over to the general election, New York voters can turn around a poor turnout record dating to the start of this century.

Melodie Bryant, a Chelsea resident in her 60s, will be going to the polling sites with national politics on her mind.

“There are too many issues to mention, but probably foremost is reining in a dangerous president whose party seems unwilling to check him,” she said. “Nationally I’m excited about the prospect of Democrats taking control of the House, and hopefully even the Senate, and reining in this dangerous administration.”

At the same time, area voters are quick to emphasize the importance of elections at the state level and their impact on day-to-day life.

“Locally, I’m really excited at the prospect of turning the New York Senate blue. Getting Democratic control in Albany is the only way to get the money for the MTA,” Bryant added.

Lori Weil, a 27-year-old resident of Hell’s Kitchen, said she does not discount the importance of local elections.

“My thought about the importance of voting whether it’s statewide or nationwide is generally the same: the people you vote for can affect your money, your healthcare, your rights, your access to different things,” she said.

Weil also pointed out that state elections can be just as impactful as federal elections on issues she feels strongly about. “Gun policy and abortion specifically are issues that can be easier to tackle at the state level,” Weil noted. “It may seem that states don’t have as much authority regarding something like immigration, but major policies for gun control and abortion can happen at the state level.”

Some listed their families as formative influences on their voting habits. Limongi grew up in Hell’s Kitchen. Both her parents came to America as undocumented immigrants, eventually receiving their citizenship with help from the McManus Midtown Democratic Club.

“Once that happened, voting was a thing for them,” Limongi noted. “Whether it be local or the primaries, we made it a family affair. ‘Did you vote? Let’s go vote. We’ll do it together.’ I clearly saw the importance of participating in elections. I was inspired by them.”

Her family’s civic engagement eventually translated to a career in politics. Limongi works as press secretary for New York’s City Council. She observed her parents, who have lived in the same apartment in Hell’s Kitchen for 40 years, watching the news and reading newspapers to understand local politics. From her current perspective inside city politics, she understands the impact of elections on communities.

“I ask people all the time, did you register to vote and they say, ‘Oh, it’s not the presidential election. No, you have no idea how important local elections are,” she said. “Every vote counts. It’s not just hyperbole. It literally counts.”

Activists and pundits have turned their eyes to young voters, hoping to mobilize a demographic that historically votes at a low rate. In the 2014 midterm elections, only 16 percent of those eligible under 30 voted, according to the United States Elections Project. Increased registration among voters under 30 has drawn attention following youth-led nationwide protest movements. The question remains whether registrations will translate to voters on Election Day.

James Kuntz, a 17-year-old junior at the Dalton School, started an organization called Teens in Politicsto help young people find positions within political offices. He believes in the importance of getting involved in politics as early as possible to establish a habit of voting.

“There’s a generational disconnect between politicians who are usually older, and they don’t think they can make a difference with their vote,” he said, citing the reasons young people may be turned off from voting. “That’s exactly why we’re targeting young people with Teens in Politics to establish that interest in politics when they are young.”

One young Chelsea resident’s early exposure to politics led him to continue in the field full-time. Wyatt Frank, 22, grew up in Penn South and interned in Tom Duane’s office after high school. After interning in Councilmember Corey Johnson’s office during college, he now works on scheduling and advance for NYC Council Speaker Johnson.

He believes that many young people may not realize how much of an impact they can have.

“A lot of people see things and think, maybe this could be better or wonder how this gets done. They just don’t follow up,” he said. “I recently brought my friend to a local Democratic club meeting. I told him that If he had some sort of issue he wanted to work on he could bring a few friends to the meeting, pitch it, and make something happen. I think that for him was eye opening how easy and straightforward it is.”

Wyatt Frank grew up in Penn South and got involved with politics after high school. | Photo by Sam Bleiberg

Although Frank recalls his family emphasizing the importance of voting growing up, they don’t make a family affair out of voting because he typically volunteers from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. on election days. Bryant participates in other campaigns to help get out the vote.

“Because my Democratic State reps are running unopposed, I am involved in #PostcardsForVoters to get upstate New Yorkers to turn out,” she said. “I also make regular trips to Bay Ridge to canvass for Andrew Gounardes, whose opponent, Marty Golden has been a major obstacle against speed cameras. Nationally and locally, I’m giving to Democratic candidates across the board. I’ll worry about my credit card later.”

Individuals may not be the only ones to blame for New York’s historically poor voter turnout. The deadlines for registering for a political party far out from election day drew criticism ahead of the primary. New York is one of only 13 states that do not offer an option for early voting.

Kuntz recommended several best practices from around the US and internationally.

“Make voting multi-day,” he proposed, by “going to universities and doing registration in public universities. Same-day registration is a good way. There are 15 states and the District of Columbia where you can show up on voting day and register for the election,” he noted.

In the meantime, voters of all ages will need to make the effort to make their voices heard. Weil encourages potential voters to consider the future impacts of their choices at the ballot box.

“You might feel like choosing a governor or a senator isn’t going to affect your day-to-day life now,” Weil said. “But in the near future politicians are going to create policies that will affect your life or people you know — your neighbors, your family, your community.”

Shirley Limongi grew up in a Hell’s Kitchen household where voting was mandatory.

Voter participation in New York lagged behind other states in the last midterm elections, but turnout surged in the September primary. | Photo by Sam Bleiberg

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