Following the final tally in 2009, Tom Suozzi could do nothing but sit and contemplate why his effort to regain his old job as County Executive proved unsuccessful, falling a mere 386 votes short in the 2009 election. And while it was an extremely close race between Suozzi and his Republican counterpart, at second glance the question could be asked should it really have been so close?
Nassau County has a registered voting population of over 900,000 people. But, the 2009 County Executive election drew barely a third of them to the polls, leaving the margin for victory perilously thin.
Mangano sign in Garden City
During a recount following the 2009 election it became clear to Tom Suozzi that he would not gain the necessary votes to win so he conceded to Ed Mangano. The total ballots cast were roughly 250,000, with nearly 10,000 of them cast for a third candidate Steven Hansen. With such a low voter turnout, a minority of county residents effectively made a decision that affected the whole county: who is in charge.
In addition to being the chief executive of the county, the county executive is the chief budget officer and has the power to appoint department heads and lower level officials, not to mention the ability to award millions of dollars in contracts.
So why don’t more people care about deciding who carries out these duties?
Nassau County has a history of voter apathy.
WRHU Operations Manager John Mullen is a registered voter on Long Island. He believes that the lack of voter turnout stems from a number of circumstances.
“I think people choose not to vote out of laziness, or they’re not informed, they’re not engaged or they’re so caught up in day to day life that they don’t take the extra effort to get out and vote,”
Disinterest in voting goes beyond the County Executive race.
In 2011, Nassau County held a midsummer election to approve or reject a project to borrow $400 million to redevelop the Nassau Coliseum. The proposed redevelopment was estimated to bring thousands of jobs to the area and revitalize the New York Islanders’ presence on Long Island.
The proposed plan was soundly crushed, with an exceptionally low voter turnout. Out of the 900,000 registered voters of the county, less than 200,000 showed up, a measly 17% of the population.
The question that begs to be answered is what will it take for Nassau voters to get involved?
The promise of a dramatic rematch between Mangano and Suozzi, and the current chaotic climate of national politics may draw people out of their homes, according to Rosanna Perotti, a professor of political science at Hofstra University in Hempstead.
“When you have a race like this, the turnout is going to be robust,” said Perotti. “Another reason I think turnout might be good is that the government shutdown may have had the effect of mobilizing turnout among people, particularly among Democrats, people who are angry at the way it began.”
The role of ordinary citizens and voting in politics, on both the local and national level, has a varying degree of importance depending on who you ask.
“It’s the American thing to do. We are given the right to vote and we seem to take advantage of it at times,” explained Nick Valastro, a sophomore at Hofstra University. “At times we disregard it, like “Oh who cares?”, but with voting, it all starts with us. Even with who your county executive is going to be, it doesn’t matter if it’s for senator or congressman. It all really depends on us and who we vote for.”
So does that mean that there should be a legal obligation to vote?
Compulsory voting is enforced in 10 countries worldwide, including Australia, Brazil and Singapore.
“Not voting may not be such a bad thing in some people’s eyes because it means the people who come out to vote are those who really have political preferences that are identifiable and that they wish to express and articulate,” said Perotti.
Mandatory voting would obviously raise voter turnout, which currently hovers at around 40 percent for midterm elections, but the quality of participation could be arguably lower.
“Italians have a legal duty to vote, but do we say that they have an ideal political system? No. It is true that in other advanced democracies and advanced industrialized democratic countries there is a legal duty to vote. I don’t know that the quality of participation is so high there,” continued Perotti.
The rematch for County Executive will take place on November 5.