Why NYC elections are in odd-number years
effects of odd-year elections // why we have them // how to change it // effects of even-year elections // who's working on this? // overall lessons
New York City’s elections are held on odd-numbered years. The last one was in 2021, and 2023 has its own slate of people to vote for, including the whole City Council.
There’s a reason for this timing—it’s hard-coded into the New York State constitution—but odd-year elections aren’t inevitable.
The effects of odd-year elections
On citizens: Many people don’t like odd-year elections. No one knows who’s on the ballot, no one knows what local offices are, there’s no cultural energy behind voting like there is in presidential elections, and often voters don’t even know they’re happening.
On government: On the governmental side, they cost extra money.1 They cost money to administer, cost money to run public education campaigns, and cost money to monitor and audit when they’re done. They’re a whole extra series of elections (including the primary and general) that could otherwise just be part of even-year elections.
On electoral politics: when local elections aren’t aligned with more high profile even-year elections at the state and federal level, local politicians do not face pressure to align themselves with the party politics of those other levels of government, or campaign as sharply on state and federal issues—which means they can focus on campaigning on local issues, theoretically.
For example, if you’re a city Democrat in an odd-year election, you are freer to disagree with your Democratic governor or a Democratic president—you’re not running at the same time as them, and your sound bites can’t as effectively be put next to theirs by opposition in another party or during your party primary. You can imagine this playing out in many different ways.
On electoral power: And from a power allocation perspective, they relatively advantage voting blocs that have better organization (like political machines, public unions, and more), because they can overcome the information and energy barrier in off years; they disadvantage voting blocs that are not organized (the young, the poor, etc); and they generally depress the percentage of any jurisdiction that has input into the electoral process by depressing turnout overall.2
In NYC’s 2021 general election, only 23.3% of eligible voters voted. In the age 18-29 cohort, only 11.1% voted. In the age 30-39 cohort, only 16.3% voted.3
Why NYC has odd-year elections: some history
The short answer: because it’s required by Article XIII, Section 8 of the state constitution, which says (emphasis added):
All elections of city officers, including supervisors, elected in any city or part of a city, and of county officers elected in any county wholly included in a city, except to fill vacancies, shall be held on the Tuesday succeeding the first Monday in November in an odd-numbered year, and the term of every such officer shall expire at the end of an odd-numbered year. This section shall not apply to elections of any judicial officer.4
This provision was originally added during the 1894 state constitutional convention that met in Albany from May 8 through September 29, 1894, and was approved by voters that November. Although in the 1894 version of the state constitution, this provision was originally located in Article XII, Section 3.5
The city’s voting year had previously been moved for 1850 (an even-year election), 1857 (and odd-year election), and 1870 (an even year election). 1894 was the last time it was moved, and we’ve been on odd-year cycles ever since.
In 1894, reformers thought moving the city elections to odd years would break the electoral advantage that Tammany Hall, among others, had in New York City:
In the years following the 1870 election timing switch, reformers came out fully and consistently in favor of off-cycle New York City election timing, even if they recognized the trade-offs inherent in separating city elections from state and national elections. On the one hand, off-cycle elections were good for the reformers because their local organizations had no way to appeal to the Presidential Voters who cast ballots for the major parties in local elections. However, off-cycle election timing also carried disadvantages for the reformers: the Democrats were undeniably better equipped to turn out supportive voters and could more easily overwhelm smaller electorates.6
How can the city change to even-year elections?
It will take a New York State constitutional amendment, which means the change will take multiple years in any case.
You can amend the constitution in two ways, per its Article 19:
Two successive legislatures must pass the same constitutional amendment, at which point it goes onto the ballot for the voters of the state. If they approve it, it’s in the constitution. “Two successive legislatures” just means two legislatures separated by a general election. The idea here is that constitutional changes should reflect a durable opinion, and one proxy for that is that the opinion persists across at least one election.7
In a constitutional convention. The state constitution offers these to voters every 20 years.8
The effects of even-year elections
On citizens: elections will be more predictable, since most people have come to expect elections in even years. There will also generally be more enthusiasm for local elections: they borrow energy from the state and federal electoral cycle. Citizens have far less to keep track of and less to do: no separate set of polling sites, no separate ballots, no separate voting calendar, etc.
On government: elections become easier and cheaper to administer, for the simple reason that there are less of them when local elections are rolled into already-extant, even-year elections.
On electoral politics: local officials might feel more pressure to comment on state and national issues when they’re on the ballot at the same time as state and federal officials, especially in presidential election years. This can take focus away from local issues that they have control over, and it can bless or curse them with the electoral success of their state and federal counterparts.
In New York City, this gets a bit more interesting, because NY’s governor is elected on an even year, for a four year term, but it’s not on the same cycle as the presidential terms. Our current governor is on her 2022-2024 cycle, and our current president is on his 2020-2024 cycle. They’re two years off.
So if you want the city to move to even-year elections, you will also need to decide whether you want the advantages and disadvantages of aligning with the gubernatorial or the presidential cycle.9
On electoral power: city elections on even years would give a relative boost to more unorganized voters, and those who are more motivated by state and federal elections. Even-year elections would also likely boost turnout, and increase the percentage of the city that has electoral input.
Is anyone working on changing NYC to even-year elections?
This is not a very salient issue in New York City politics at the moment, although there are some advocacy groups, individuals, and city council members who are trying to move city elections to even years. If you want to work on this, you wouldn’t have to start from scratch, although you also wouldn’t be plugging into a current fiery issue.
On June 7, 2023, the City Council Committee on Governmental Operations held a hearing to discuss Council Member Sandra Ung’s Resolution 646, which asks the state legislature to pass a constitutional amendment moving city elections to even years. Initially the resolution specifically asked to move the city elections to gubernatorial years, but this was amended to just any even year, presidential or gubernatorial. The resolution is currently still in committee, and has not passed to the full City Council for a vote.
Here’s a list of institutions and people who are interested in moving city elections, and who provided supportive testimony10 in favor of Resolution 646:
The New York City Campaign Finance Board, which regularly mentions the reform in its election retrospective reports like this one for 2021-2022, p.21.
Separately (he did not provide testimony during 646’s hearing): NYC Campaign Finance Board chair, Frederick P. Schaffer. He also discusses other electoral reforms to go along with moving election dates, including non-partisan primaries.
The Citizens Union, which produced this detailed report on the subject.
These other groups:
The status quo is powerful, and takes effort to change
People on the periphery of city politics, and the much larger group who only treat it as a sport but possess little actual knowledge, often dismiss odd-year city elections as the result of active stupidity. They suspect that there is a modern “bad guy,” either in the form of lawmakers who don’t care, or who actively endorse the system.
While there are always bad actors in politics, the above kind of view is misplaced (as it generally is). Changing the city’s voting year requires a constitutional amendment, and getting that done requires spending political capital. Lawmakers do not have unlimited amounts of this, and activating elected officials and citizens enough to get this change done likely means you’re making a trade-off. People don’t like trade-offs, and they love the status quo, so it’s quite easy to see why this change is moving slowly right now.
That said, I think anyone who wants to get this done should feel confident pursuing reform. To have the best chance of success, they’ll have to learn how the city and state work, and theorize novel political affordances. It can be done!
Things are often not as simple as you think in politics
As with many political issues, the provenance of law and our current status quo is quite sophisticated.
Not everything that is sub-optimal (or perceived to be that way) is due to someone being evil.
And hardly anything exists just for “no reason.”
If you want to change something, you need to get a firm grip on its origin, its evolution, and its ramifications. Politics is not so easy that you can just jump in and immediately apprehend it well.
It is important to understand city and state history
Our present reality is partly the product of path dependencies that were set in the past. In the case of city election years, it was the partisan political maneuvering of the nineteenth century that culminated in the 1894 state constitutional convention.
And the actions that we take to shape the present will create path dependencies that constrain the future. History gives you a lot of data to evaluate and weigh what you are passing on, not just operational knowledge for the present.
From the New York City Council’s Committee Report of the Governmental Affairs Division, for the Committee on Governmental Operations, from the hearing on June 7, 2023, p.11: “Off-cycle elections also increase the cost of election administration. The New York City Board of Elections spends millions of dollars administering elections in odd-numbered years. Consolidating elections into even-numbered years would eliminate some of that cost and allow the Board to ‘concentrate on delivering crucial election services in dedicated election years.’”
A good overview of these effects throughout the history of New York City can be found in Timing and Turnout: How Off-Cycle Elections Favor Organized Groups, by Sarah Anzia (2014). Specifically, the “New York” section of chapter three, “Partisan Power Play: Election Timing Politics in the Nineteenth Century.” That chapter also has a similar analyses of changing election years for Philadelphia and San Francisco, if you’re interested in those cities too.
In the city’s 2021 general election, only 23.3% of eligible voters voted. (New York City Campaign Finance Board, “2021-2022 voter analysis report",” p.57)
Even further: of the age 18-29 cohort, only 11.1% of you voted. (ibid, p.59)
Of the age 30-39 cohort, only 16.3% of you voted. (ibid, p.59)
Timing and Turnout: How Off-Cycle Elections Favor Organized Groups, by Sarah Anzia (2014). Specifically, the “New York” section of chapter three, “Partisan Power Play: Election Timing Politics in the Nineteenth Century.”
Any amendment or amendments to this constitution may be proposed in the senate and assembly…if the amendment or amendments as proposed or as amended shall be agreed to by a majority of the members elected to each of the two houses, such proposed amendment or amendments shall be…referred to the next regular legislative session convening after the succeeding general election of members of the assembly, and shall be published for three months previous to the time of making such choice; and if in such legislative session, such proposed amendment or amendments shall be agreed to by a majority of all the members elected to each house, then it shall be the duty of the legislature to submit each proposed amendment or amendments to the people for approval in such manner and at such times as the legislature shall prescribe; and if the people shall approve and ratify such amendment or amendments by a majority of the electors voting thereon, such amendment or amendments shall become a part of the constitution on the first day of January next after such approval.
At the general election to be held in the year nineteen hundred fifty-seven, and every twentieth year thereafter, and also at such times as the legislature may by law provide, the question "Shall there be a convention to revise the constitution and amend the same?" shall be submitted to and decided by the electors of the state; and in case a majority of the electors voting thereon shall decide in favor of a convention for such purpose, the electors of every senate district of the state, as then organized, shall elect three delegates at the next ensuing general election, and the electors of the state voting at the same election shall elect fifteen delegates-at-large. The delegates so elected shall convene at the capitol on the first Tuesday of April next ensuing after their election, and shall continue their session until the business of such convention shall have been completed.
There is currently a resolution pending in the Governmental Operations committee in the New York City Council that calls on the state legislature to amend the constitution to move city elections to even-numbered years. The original version of Resolution 646 calls for city elections to be aligned with gubernatorial elections, but the current, amended version just asks that they be moved to even years. This would give the state and city regular, statutory flexibility to select either cycle without having to make a constitutional change.