Did you know that you can, right now, vote on how city funds could be allocated to community-focused projects in your neighborhood, and you don’t even have to stand in line or mail out a ballot to do it? Try it, it’s right here. It’ll take you five minutes, and I guarantee you’ll feel a little jolt of satisfaction after you’re done (note: the deadline for this cycle is Sunday, June 25).
Now, this doesn’t turn the development of the city budget writ large over to direct voting. The total funding for this citywide program is $5 million, distributed among the five boroughs, which makes it less than a rounding error in the context of an annual municipal budget in excess of $100 billion, which is to say, over 20,000 times as large.
That doesn’t mean the money is meaningless; the conceit here is that it would be allocated for program funding anyway, but how it is allocated is up to the community, in a way that draws them in to one of the most basic questions of governance. One of the most common complaints you’ll hear from regular people is that electoral politics aren’t responsive and the cause-and-effect is too diffused to motivate them to turn out. You vote for candidate A-perhaps you’re a single-issue voter who’s banking on that candidate having an influence on that specific issue, in which case you can get exactly what you want, but for most people the results of candidate A’s victory are less clear.
Perhaps you supported them because you identified with their general ideological leanings, or you knew them as a leader in the community, or they had name recognition, or they were simply the candidate that your party supported. In any case, for voters who don’t have the time or inclination to exhaustively follow what their representative is doing and how they’re voting, it can seem like the electoral process isn’t meaningfully having an outcome. It can seem that some politicians coast for years despite spotty legislative and constituent services records.
With a participatory budgeting ballot, the outcomes are more clear-cut: you vote for policy B, and if it wins, you see policy B implemented in your community. The objective is really twofold. First, it brings people into the electoral process in a way that acrimonious, personalistic elections don’t, and second, it posits that community members might be the best ones to make choices about funding, particularly on items that could broadly be construed as social services.
If you’re getting some déjà vu from this participatory budgeting voting process, it might be because the City Council runs its own initiative, with many individual council members choosing to allocate at least $1 million of their yearly $5 million discretionary funds to the program. This year, 28 out of 51 council districts participated, meaning that the council participatory budgeting program is actually significantly larger overall than the executive one in progress, but also much more segmented, limited to specific City Council districts. This is the first time that this executive version is being run, so let’s send a message and make it count.
The citywide program offers borough-wide ballots as well as ballots for 33 specific so-called “equity neighborhoods,” which are areas identified as having particular local needs. People can vote on which projects get funding: each borough gets between four (Staten Island) and ten (Brooklyn) borough-wide projects on the ballot. Of these, between one (Staten Island) and four (Brooklyn) will be selected by majority vote and funded to the tune of between $177,000 and $280,000 each, roughly matching each borough’s population and level of need. The equity ballots follow a similar process, with one project selected to receive an additional $50,000 grant from a choice of between three to five neighborhood-specific projects.
Manhattan, for example, gets eight projects on the ballot, of which two will be funded at $262,500 each, plus five equity areas encompassing the Lower East Side and Chinatown, Morningside Heights and Hamilton Heights, Central Harlem, East Harlem, and Washington Heights and Inwood, meaning the borough will receive a total of $775,000 including the $50,000 allocations for specific neighborhoods. What do these projects look like? Well, let’s look at my ballots as an example. I am eligible for the Manhattan and Central Harlem ones. In the former, the eight projects involve housing outreach, a youth arts program, vocational resources for students, critical thinking workshops for students and teachers, paid internships, mental health treatment, substance and social support services, and crisis response training for social workers. In the latter, the Central Harlem ballot, options are a program to educate community members on health disparities and chronic health issues, another to engage in civic leadership training for youth, and another to provide technology equipment and training to youth and seniors.
What’s notable here is all these are community-serving initiatives, which makes this distinct from other direct-democracy initiatives like ballot measures. Once the projects are approved, you can actually go see the initiatives in action, and maybe even participate.
Zooming out a little, this has the potential to move the needle on the problem of civic and electoral disengagement in NYC, which has consistently abysmal rates of turnout, especially for local races. The participatory budgeting structure doesn’t have a citizenship requirement and is open to anyone over 11 years old, and as such can start drawing in new audiences to be engaged in political activity and organizing. Beyond the voting itself, the ideas — over 4,000 of them — were submitted by New Yorkers and evaluated by the city’s Civic Engagement Commission and local resident committees, meaning that it had a grassroots component at every step of the way. Think of it as a kind of positive gateway drug for voting and civic engagement.
It also furthers NYC’s recent and encouraging trend of being a kind of laboratory for democratic experimentation at a large urban scale. We weren’t the first city to adopt ranked-choice voting, but certainly the largest and most complex. Other cities and localities around the country look to us for inspiration, and here’s another opportunity to prove that different ways of approaching civics, and particularly ways that are more responsive to voters, less top-down, can work well and do some good. The nonprofit Participatory Budgeting Project maintains a map of participatory budgeting initiatives in the U.S. and Canada, and we should be proud to see NYC’s already significant footprint growing bit by bit.