ALBANY -- Just a third of New York's eligible voters cast ballots Tuesday to elect members of Congress as well as every statewide office holder, rivaling a low not seen since 1934.
"The last time I voted was in 2008. That was for Barack Obama," said Quardel Valentine, 24, of Albany, who works at a chain restaurant. Although he considers himself a Democrat and wants a more responsive government, no candidate since has appealed to him enough to put voting among the priorities of a busy life in hard fiscal times. "Unless they have an ad that really draws me to them, I don't really go for them or go out of my way."
Whether thinking their vote doesn't count, being angry at the rising vitriol of campaigns, or just feeling ignored or helpless as the effects of a historic recession continue to hit home, fewer people -- 3.71 million, or 31 percent of those registered -- voted Tuesday in New York, according to election records, academic research and political observers.
That's the fewest number of voters since 1934, when 3.6 million votes were cast. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo received 1.9 million votes Tuesday, the lowest since 1.7 million votes were cast in 1930 for Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt, according to records.
Traditionally low turnout
Tuesday's low turnout was in part because midterm congressional elections traditionally draw fewer voters than in presidential election years.
"It's moving away from a worry to a crisis," said Gerald Benjamin, distinguished professor of political science at SUNY New Paltz. "We are not talking about a natural ebb and flow. We are talking about a deep dip. . . . This could be a harbinger of a fundamental shift that we need to think very hard about."
Nonvoters are disproportionately young, poorer, less educated and less likely to be white than voters, according to the Pew Research Center.
Political scientists said many nonvoters feel frustrated after years of gridlock in Washington and corruption scandals in Albany. Others are content to let their government run on autopilot, unless new ideas or new faces shake them into action, the way Obama did for many in 2008.
"The undercurrent is the lack of ability to make a difference, a sort of helplessness," said Doug Muzzio, a political science professor at Baruch College. "Part of it is anger out there, and I saw it."
He rattled off the targets of that anger: "The economy, jobs, direction of the country, future of their kids, Ebola, ISIS, Obamacare," as well as some who don't like having an African-American president.
"Some people mistakenly think that politics doesn't matter," Muzzio said. "But you can fight city hall and the statehouse -- you don't win a lot, but you can win."
Good-government advocate Michael Benjamin said nonvoters want candidates to focus on kitchen table issues. "These people don't operate in the abstract," said Benjamin, a former Democratic assemblyman from the Bronx. "They need something concrete in their lives. When you are maybe on the margins and not that well educated, you want to be able to hold employment, you want your child to have better schools, but you don't seem to be able to have an impact on that."
'Why bother' attitude
A lack of competitive races in New York adds to the "why bother?" attitude, analysts said.
Unlike most states, New York's legislative leaders have long drawn their own district lines to stack the deck for incumbents, while limits on campaign donations are among the nation's highest.
Good-government groups complain that loose rules also allow incumbents to raise millions of dollars more than most challengers by tapping individuals and companies doing business with the state. That and other incumbent advantages contribute to a 95-percent re-election rate for legislators, despite polls that show voters dislike the State Legislature.
Even likely voters tell pollsters they feel that anger and frustration.
In recent years, polls have shown about half of voters thought New York was on "the wrong track," while more than half thought the country was headed in the wrong direction.
New Yorkers were about evenly divided on whether the state is better off now than four years ago, when it was in the last throes of recession, according to the Siena College Research Institute poll.
"It's a feeling that, 'Neither party cares about me, my family or my concerns, so what's the point?' " said Siena's pollster Steven Greenberg.
His state polling backs up national research that "young people just don't vote."
"What I hear from them is, 'They don't care about the issues I care about.' And my retort is that there is a little bit of a chicken-and-egg problem -- you start voting and they will start talking about your issues," Greenberg said.
The traditional forum in campaigns for those exchanges -- debates -- took a hit this year as many incumbents limited participation in the events.
"If there's no place to turn where the voter can make their own independent judgment, then they have to rely on paid advertising," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. "Negative ads are used to demonize your opponent. So, to the casual voter or moderate voter, they think the choice is between demons, so what's the point?"
He said the nasty tone of campaigns in New York turns off many voters, but the method works for political parties to "gin up their bases. It's sort of a democracy death spiral."
Even longtime, reliable voters are getting fed up.
Elected officials "are thinking too politically and not what their government job should be," said Kathryn Wiener, 65, of Ronkonkoma.
"People who I know are disgusted," said the mother of three children who have moved to other states for jobs and lower-cost housing. "They don't like the tone of the elections, the terrible, lying ads, the meanness. Nobody talks about policy."
The same trend was seen this year nationwide.
"More than ever, we saw negative advertisements that were largely without substance," said David J. Andersen, assistant professor of political science at Iowa State University, who researches voter behavior and sentiment nationwide.
He said research shows a campaign ad needs to be seen six to 10 times to sink in.
Ad budgets grow
Today, voters around the country are seeing the same ad dozens, sometimes hundreds of times as campaign accounts grow larger each cycle, he said.
Anderson also faults the Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010, which prompted the creation of super PACs that aren't governed by the funding limits of campaigns to run independent ads to support or attack candidates. The court decision also boosted the role of tax-exempt entities using money from donors who aren't disclosed.
"From what I saw in Iowa, it was carpet bombed by political ads," Andersen said of this year's campaign. "I'm confident this is turning people off politics, with all this and so little substance."
All of these factors, compounded by an increasing lack of community identity in which voting is reinforced as a social event, are shrinking the electorate, said Benjamin, the SUNY New Paltz political scientist.
But legislative remedies today focus on registering voters more easily -- when applying for a car registration or social services -- not getting out the vote. As a result, voter registration is increasing annually even as fewer people vote.
"All incumbents have a stake in a predictable electorate," Benjamin said. "They like things the way they are. They're winning."Even as more voters were registered, the number of votes cast in this year's gubernatorial election dropped compared with 2010.
Votes / Registered voters
2014* 3.71 million / 11.8 million
2010 4.76 million / 11.8 million
2006 4.69 million / 11.6 million
2002 4.69 million / 11.2 million
1998 4.98 million / 10.7 million
1994 5.32 million / 8.7 million
1990 4.29 million / 7.8 million
1986 4.48 million / 8 million
1982 5.43 million / 7.1 million
1978 4.92 million / 7.4 million
1974 5.54 million / 7.3 million
* unofficial totals
Source: New York State Board of Elections