A Vicious Circle of Low Voter Turnout in the South Bronx

It’s Primary Day, but not one campaign flyer is posted in the four-block radius of election district 50/84 in the South Bronx. A few blocks away, four campaign workers line the block in front of a polling place, but no one lines up to vote.

The corner of Kelly Street and Avenue St. John is at the center of this precinct, which is physically characterized by townhomes and four-story walk-ups. Crime and poor graduation rates have hounded it for decades. The lack of voters and campaign propaganda is hardly a surprise. For years, voter turnout in the South Bronx has been low, according to a New York City Campaign Finance Board report.

Among the tiny election districts that make up the area, precinct 50/84 has possibly the worst turnout rate of all. In the last general election for mayor, just 14 of 160 registered voters (or 8.75 percent) cast a ballot, while turnout citywide hovered above 18 percent. The number of registered voters has since increased to 633, according to the New York City Board of Elections.

The campaign finance board, in a 2012 report, linked low turnout to low income, low educational attainment and housing instability in the South Bronx. But many residents of election district 50/84 said they don’t feel like they are even on the city map.

“People here have their own opinions. They have their agendas, their worries,” said Randy Arzu, who lives in the precinct and was pushing his daughter in her stroller on Election Day. “Politicians have to come out and introduce themselves, talk to us to understand that. If they come to neighborhoods where the others don’t, that should be a bonus.”

The candidates for this year’s mayoral race didn’t come though. A New York Times analysis shows few South Bronx campaign stops for any of the candidates. John Liu and Christine Quinn appear to have made the most stops, according to maps created by the Times. And Bill Thompson has made a last minute push to attract voters in the Bronx, as well.

“People feel like their vote doesn’t count here,” said Wayne James, who was visiting his mother in precinct 50/84. “I go to other neighborhoods and I see signs everywhere. But it’s only because of that and my TV that I know there’s an election. Lots of people here have no idea there’s a mayor’s race.”

James suggests that the cycle of disengagement is a vicious circle—people don’t vote, politicians stop paying attention, people vote even less.

“During the summer, there was a shooting out here every weekend,” said James. “But you go down to the corner and the basketball court is busted. There’s nowhere for kids to go. And there’s no work. People are gonna rob and sell drugs, if there’s no work.”

“We’re out here on our own,” said James.

Arzu, the young father, hopes that politicians will find a creative way to engage the community. “Have a basketball tournament or a block party. Bring celebrities out here. Go to the barber shops and the restaurants. You’ve got to find out what people want,” he said.

Meanwhile, back at the polling station, the single voting machine reserved for precinct 50/84 stood empty. By the end of the night 46 people pulled its lever, according to unofficial results, almost quadrupling the number of voters from the last mayoral general election.

But that’s not exactly an improvement. Based on the new number of registered voters, 46 people translates to just 7.3 percent.