I went to the polls last week to vote in the New York City primary, once again knowing almost nothing about who I was voting for, choosing the candidates for mayor, comptroller, public advocate, city council, city attorney, etc., on the basis of advice from friends and various endorsements I had heard about. For many of the races, this primary is tantamount to the general election, for many of the offices. But I was in a fog. Who were these people?
This is no way to run a democracy. Are most people this ignorant, or is it just me? I'm an old political reporter, and tend to follow political affairs. I also can be quite tiresome in preaching the need for civic engagement and political participation. Just ask my wife.
But making truly informed choices about local offices has always been hard, in every city I have lived. But nowhere harder than in New York City. Most local elections here are below radar, or at least my radar. I did see a lot of advertisements from the candidates, but most are not very informative because the candidates are straining so hard not to offend. What I need was fair evaluation by an outside party.
To me, this has traditionally meant newspapers. I'm a newspaper kind of guy. But I've long been critical of newspapers, my old employers, for not paying close enough attention to local elections. If they cover them at all, it tends to be as spectacles — look at the monkeys in the zoo — not as helping citizens make informed choices about how their community will operate.
While this is true in most cities, once again it's more true in New York City. The city is so large with so many millions of people, that even if they wanted to it would be difficult for the main newspapers to cover well the races for city council, state senator, and other offices that are on a district level. But they could do a much better job of covering the citywide races, for mayor, comptroller and city attorney. The New York Times, which we look toward for excellent journalism, probably does the worst job, not deigning to check in too often or intensely on such plebeian affairs, even in its home city. At least that's my sense of things, although it's possible I missed some of the coverage.
Perhaps though there are other ways though to find out who one wants to vote for. The Internet is killing traditional newspapers, but it has led to a wealth of new sources of local news. Blogs, list serves, local websites, and so on. Or so I am told. I have not integrated many of these into my life, or at least not any that cover or engage with local elections.
An RPA staffer told me he had got plenty of information on the candidates through blogs and other new media. He said he and even got a "tweet" — a message from Twitter, the short Internet message phenomenon — about one candidate from a friend. Poor me. I'm so behind the times.
What do others do? How can one be a good citizen these days and participate well in elections that just happen to pick the politicians with responsibilities over key parts of our lives, our streets, our homes and our transportation systems?