Editorial: A look at the local voter turnout problem

State Senator Lee Zeldin (left) and Congressman Tim Bishop (right) took turns a podium in Polish Hall to address questions Wednesday night in Riverhead.
State Senator Lee Zeldin (left) and Congressman Tim Bishop (right) took turns a podium in Polish Hall to address questions at a debate in Riverhead.

Eighty thousand. That’s around the number of 1st Congressional District voters who went to the polls in 2012 but are not likely to cast a vote in next month’s mid-term election.

Although the number of registered voters in the district has grown by about 9 percent since Congressman Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) was first elected in 2002, turnout changes very little with each passing election. In fact, turnout hasn’t fluctuated at all in presidential election years, with about 278,000 voters casting ballots each time. 

As of April 1, there were 448,454 registered voters in the 1st Congressional District, up about 20,000 since the last mid-term.

And while the district will likely see turnout of more than 200,000 for the first time since 2002, more than half of registered voters are expected to stay home.

About 43 percent of eligible district voters went to the polls in 2002, followed by 41 percent in the 2006 mid-terms and about 46 percent in Mr. Bishop’s hotly contested and highly publicized 2010 rematch against Republican challenger Randy Altschuler of St. James.

Sadly, voter turnout is worse elsewhere in the U.S. At a time when Americans are expressing greater concern about inactivity and ineffectiveness in Washington than at any time in recent history, voter turnout in the 1st District remains about 10 percent above the national average.

According to the Pew Research Center, 51 percent of all registered U.S. voters showed up for the presidential election in 2012, but just 37 percent voted in the 2010 mid-terms. Locally, turnout shifted from 65 to 46 percent in those same two election years. The bump in numbers for a state like New York is also somewhat ironic, as this is a decidedly blue state where presidential votes have little real impact on Election Day, given the nature of the Electoral College.

While the issue of voter turnout is widely publicized across the country, we felt it important to use this space to share the local numbers this week, in advance of our Oct. 30 voter guide and endorsements.

This year, Suffolk County residents have plenty of reasons to show up at the polls. The race between Mr. Bishop and Republican challenger Lee Zeldin, a state Senator from Shirley, has drawn lots of attention from both national committees as Republicans look to broaden their control of the House by winning one of the nation’s few remaining split districts.

And while state Senator Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) continues to evade a real challenge, the race for the South Shore seat Mr. Zeldin is vacating could help determine who controls that house in Albany. Recent history tells us Long Island might be better off remaining in the hands of the GOP — unless, of course, bailing out the incompetent Metropolitan Transit Authority is your thing.

There are also several special elections that could bring more 1st District voters out to the polls than in previous mid-term years, including a race for county comptroller and a seat on the Brookhaven Town Board. And in Southold Town, two very strong candidates are running in a special election for the Board of Trustees.

We’d hope these few facts might push voter turnout in the 1st Congressional District above 50 percent this year, but we fear that might be too optimistic.