A Parade, a Primary, and a Giant Absence of Voter Calls
Al Schwendtner, a volunteer at the NYPIRG voter complaint hotline, reaches for a rare call on Super Tuesday. The hotline only had 120 calls by noon.
As a raucous crowd celebrated the Giants’ Superbowl win in Lower Manhattan on Tuesday morning, Cathy Soll sat in a basement office a half-block away, waiting for the phone to ring. She was one of about a dozen volunteers staffing a voter hotline, and she had a lot of time on her hands.
“It’s disgusting,” she complained. “Why did the parade have to be today? It could have been on any other day. And I’m a Giants fan!”
The hotline, sponsored by the New York Public Interest Research Group, has operated during the general election for years, but Super Tuesday marked the first time the group had organized one up for a primary. Given the highly charged nature of this race, and fact that the hotline received nearly 3,000 calls in 15 hours during the 2004 election, the group was expecting to be busy, said Neal Rosenstein, government reform coordinator at NYPIRG. But by noon, six hours after the polls opened, only 120 calls had come in – something organizers suspected had a lot to do with Giants-mania.
“The parade is a tremendous interference,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause NY, which works with NYPIRG on the hotline. She blamed Mayor Michael Bloomberg for sending out “a lousy message” when he set the victory parade for the same day as the primary.
“What is more important, citizen participation through voting, or watching a Giants parade?” she said. “There’s no reason why it had to be today. Today, the business of the city should have been elections.”
The mayor’s office did not return calls asking for comment.
Ultimately, of course, it wasn’t really the lack of calls that hotline staffers were worried about; it was whether the low numbers meant that fewer people were voting. Volunteer Sonia Goldstein said she asked some of the fans she had met on the way whether they were voting. “They said not today.”
Board of Elections spokeswoman Valerie Vasquez said turnout figures wouldn’t be available until after polls closed at 9 p.m., but she did agree that voters at the three polling places along the parade route had probably been “temporarily inconvenienced” by the celebration.
However, since polling stations were open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., voters had plenty of time before and after the parade to cast their ballot, she said. In addition, the board was in constant communication with the New York Police Department; Vasquez said she hoped officers would facilitate voters who were trying to get through the crowds lining the parade route.
The board itself, however, was taking no chances when it came to parade-related inconveniences. Normally, members of its emergency response team work out of headquarters, but the board moved them to other locations around the city for fear that the crowds would prevent them from responding quickly in the event of a polling-place problem.
In between calls at the hotline, staffers discussed voter politics. Rosenstein redecorated the room, putting up posters marking off the number of days till the general election. In one of the cubicles, a bottle of orange juice and three pots of different cream cheese lay next to two bags full of bagels. Almost everyone sipped coffee.
Each time the phone rang, everyone grabbed for it simultaneously, hoping to be the first to answer. “It’s a race!” joked first-time volunteer Allison Tupper.
Ed Parra, 24, who was also volunteering for the first time, however, groaned as he heard cheers from the Giants fans outside. “Oh, I want to go out there,” he said.
His friend Elisain Pena, 22, understood his pain — but reminded him that it was all for a good cause. “I wanted to be there too,” Pena said. “But this is kind of more important.”