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Primary Turnout 'Pathetic' Despite Hot Races

By Jill Colvin | June 28, 2012 11:45am
Eunsook Cho, 54, votes at a mostly-empty polling station in Queens.
Eunsook Cho, 54, votes at a mostly-empty polling station in Queens.
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DNAinfo/Tuan Nguyen

NEW YORK CITY — The races were among the most hotly contested in recent memory, but few New Yorkers came out to the polls Tuesday to cast ballots in the state’s Congressional primaries.

Less than 15 percent of registered Democrats voted in the unusually early primaries, which were scheduled in June this year for the first time in 40 years.

"It's pathetic. People don't think their vote counts," said Catherine Gray, 65, a polling site coordinator at P.S. 321 in Brooklyn, who faulted the city’s Board of Elections as well as the campaigns for failing to publicize the race.

"In this district, information [about the candidates] was not sent out."

In the fierce battle between Rep. Charlie Rangel and state Sen. Adriano Espaillat, just 12.6 percent of nearly 300,000 registered Democratic voters across Harlem, Washington Heights and the northwest Bronx turned up at the polls, according to preliminary tallies.

Empty voting booths at P.S. 321 in Brooklyn, where turnout was low.
Empty voting booths at P.S. 321 in Brooklyn, where turnout was low.
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DNAinfo/Jesse Lent

Campaign sources said turnout for the five-way primary race was highest in both of the top candidates’ strongholds, with Rangel cleaning up in Central Harlem and Espaillat sweeping Washington Heights.

But in East Harlem and in the Bronx, turnout was so low it was "pathetic," one source said.

Rangel, who is fighting to return to Washington D.C., for a 22nd term, was declared the winner of the race Tuesday evening, although his lead has narrowed as ballots continue to be counted.

Citywide, preliminary numbers showed turnout was highest in Queens, where 14 percent of more than 180,000 registered Democrats took to the polls to give Assemblywoman Grace Meng a decisive win, paving her way to becoming the state’s first Asian-American in Congress.

Turnout appeared to be especially high in the district's Asian-American neighborhoods, including Flushing, where interviews with voters indicated Meng had a commanding lead.

"Everyone has anticipated a lower turnout than a usual primary simply because there's only one election, one position and also because of the first time in a long time this primary is being held in June,” Meng said, acknowledging the reality of the situation as she cast her vote early in the day.

Turnout was lowest in the 7th Congressional District, where incumbent Nydia Velázquez easily swept to victory over term-limited City Councilman Erik Dilan in the district spanning Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Brooklyn's Sunset Park, Williamsburg, Carroll Gardens, Bushwick and parts of Queens. Just 12 percent of 232,330 registered Democrats cast ballots there.

One rare exception appeared to be the heavily Orthodox Jewish section of South Williamsburg, where City & State reported election fever so hot it felt "like Mardi Gras without the nudity or the alcohol."

"It has been ridiculous since 7 a.m. and it will be ridiculous after 5:30 p.m.," one poll worker told the paper of the high turnout.

While Velázquez dominated across the Lower East Side, Queens, and Brownstone Brooklyn, she managed to keep pace with Dilan in the Hasidic sections of Williamsburg, where about 40 percent of ballots were cast in her favor, according to early poll return data.

Buts some voters said that they had trouble casting their ballots, either because of faulty voter rolls or other confusion caused by the once-in-a-decade redistricting process that shifted district lines.

Betty Welch of Prospect Heights said she arrived at her local polling station ready to vote, only to find out that her block had been eliminated from the district.

"I've been living in this neighborhood for 50 years and they've slowly but surely gerrymandered us to death," said Welch, 74, who faulted the city for leaving her in the dark.

"It's frustrating," she said. "I don't deal with change well."

In the end, about 13 percent of voters in the redrawn district decided to cast votes in the race between Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries and firebrand City Councilman Charles Barron that left Jeffries with a decisive win.

Jeffries did especially well in Coney Island, where 90 percent of voters cast ballots in his favor, according to his campaign. He also did well in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Canarsie which had been dubbed key battleground neighborhoods where voters gave him a 2-to-1 advantage, according to his campaign.

Still, even with the low turnout, Democrats put Republicans to shame in their single competitive, statewide race. Fewer than 4 percent of registered city Republicans turned out to select lawyer Wendy Long as their nominee to challenge Democratic state Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand this fall.

With reporting by Jesse Lent