Covering an Election? Why Not Cover the Voters?

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Photo by: April Sikorski

It’s tiresome to hear people declare that every trip to the polls is “the most important election in our lifetime” or “in the past decade” or “since the last one.” Even if it weren’t a hackneyed phrase, it’s impossible to know whether an election is all that significant until the people who win have a chance to govern. So, no predictions here about whether the 2013 municipal elections will change anything other than names on doors.

But there are reasons the race could be important: All three citywide offices, four of the five borough presidencies and most of the City Council will turn over; the city will be bidding farewell to a three-term mayor, marking the end of an era; there is a crowded field for the top job–at least 10 serious candidates between the two parties, with another two or three people weighing a run.

The biggest question, though, is whether most of the city will care, let alone vote.

Only 26 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the 2009 mayoral election, down from a pretty poor 33 percent in 2005. And the turnout numbers seem to reflect a deeper, even more troubling problem of people disengaging from the civic sphere–feeling that the government and our elections belong to someone else.

The media has a lot of important jobs in the political process, like simply reporting what the candidates say so that voters who do pay attention can pick the person they want to vote for, and checking at least some of those campaign claims to see if they bear some resemblance to the truth. But sometimes the coverage of elections–with its focus on fundraising numbers, commercials and strategy–not only misses the big story of voter disengagement, it could even contribute to the estrangement.

This year, in partnership with City & State and WNET’s MetroFocus, City Limits is going to cover the campaign a different way. Rather than just following what the candidates do, we’re going to report on how the campaign–and the city–look to small groups of people in five city neighborhoods.

Are the campaign debates getting any notice in public housing in Brownsville? Does anyone who frequents an Upper West Side diner actually watch the candidates’ commercials? How do patrons of a Staten Island bar feel about the way post-Sandy issues are being addressed? What do folks in Bayside think of the mayor? What do customers at a Mott Haven restaurant want out of the next one?

Follow all the action here and here. And please, let us know how the 2013 race looks to you.

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