Brooklynites called it “The Great Mistake of 1898,” a term some history aficionados use as more of a joke today. But while the borough’s annexation by New York City was undoubtedly for the best in the long term, a precedent it set disenfranchised nearly one million New Yorkers in 2014 alone — over a century later.
The issue, strangely enough, is our voting schedule. To choose a mayor and other officials for the consolidated city, the first charter set an election for November 1897. We’ve been casting ballots in odd-numbered years ever since.
The contrarian process creates problems when lawmakers move in and out of city government, an occurrence more common in an age of term limits. In 2013, four state Assembly members won seats on the city council, while State Senator Eric Adams picked up the Brooklyn borough presidency. To fill their new roles, they vacated their seats in Albany, leaving large swaths of the city unrepresented in one chamber or the other until January 2015.
As a result, over 800,000 residents of the Bronx and Brooklyn — mainly from poor, minority neighborhoods — did not have a voice in this year’s state budget. Valuable services tied to a legislator’s office, such as help with mortgage foreclosures, were shut down once the member resigned, with all but a skeleton staff let go.
It was even worse for the 40,000 Brooklynites in Crown Heights and Brownsville who had a representative in neither the Assembly nor the State Senate, leaving no one to vouch for their needs.
Vacant state-level districts in Brooklyn, 2014.
The process happens the other way, too. Three city council members, knowing they’d be barred from running for a fourth term in 2013, sought other offices in 2012. One, James Sanders Jr., won election to the state senate; the other two lost Congressional races.
Those two – Erik Martin Dilan and Charles Barron – both won Assembly seats this past November. It was a bit of a legislative switcheroo: the seats were vacated so that their holders could take Dilan’s and Barron’s places on the city council.
It’s musical chairs run amok, and when the music stops, the people lose.
The discrepancy could rear its head most dramatically in the years around 2021, when 42 of the current 51 members of city council will be ineligible to run again. Granted, not all politicians are so quick to jump ship early. Four city council members who were term-limited out of office in 2013 took a year off, so to speak, before running for other seats this fall.
Advocates for social justice often point the finger at Governor Andrew Cuomo, who cited costs in declining to fill the vacant seats through special elections. The city charter has a provision forcing a special election upon vacancy — the successor to Mr. Sanders was chosen just two months after his resignation — but getting the state to follow suit would require a constitutional amendment, a quixotic undertaking.
While we might be unable to change the way vacancies are handled in Albany, we do have the power to eliminate a key contributor to their existence. My suggestion: give a five-year term to the winners of council and executive seats in 2017, then revert to four-year terms in the 2022 elections. Not only will we reduce underrepresentation by aligning our schedule with those of state and federal offices, the restriction of voting to even-numbered years will undoubtedly save money, too.
We’ll even avoid the anomalous pair of two-year council terms, with voting in 2021 and 2023, to take into account redistricting. We’d need to deal with it in the following decade, but if there’s one thing every politician likes, it’s kicking the can down the road. We should just make sure there’s someone on the receiving end.