On the day of the primary, Joseph Rowland faced a difficult task: to get people in Hunts Point to vote. Around his neck he carried two signs with the image of Maria del Carmen Arroyo, a candidate running for her third term as council member for district 17. Her struggle was also Rowland’s struggle. From 7 a.m. in the morning, he stood at a street corner in front of a corrugated metal fence handing out literature to passersby.
“I work as a superintendent and I’m used to dealing with people. But that ain’t helping me here,” he said as once again another potential voter ignored his smile and the leaflets he held in his stretched-out hand. He did not have much to do, sometimes more than 10 minutes went by without anybody walking past.
Hunts Point, like the rest of the South Bronx, has a history of low turnout at the polls. In the last elections in 2009 only about four percent of the registered voters in the neighborhood seized the opportunity to participate in the primaries, according to the Board of Elections. In other words: 177 people decided on the future of the area’s 27,000 residents.
This election seemed to be no different. At Hunts Point Middle School, one of two polling sites in Hunts Point, there were no lines Tuesday and the workers spent the time chatting or reading books. No signs of bustle.
“People don’t care about the community,” said polling inspector Carmen Villafrane.
Merely 500 feet down the street at the other polling station in Hunts Point, the Joseph R. Drake elementary school, the same picture. By 1 p.m. only about 100 voters had stopped by, said coordinator Juan Otero. “I haven’t seen a lot of young people,” he added.
Angie Seda, a 24-year-old early childhood education student did not intend to make a visit either. “I don’t vote,” she said. Asked what would make her vote, she shrugged her shoulders. “I’m not interested in that.”
Officials know the problem of low turnout, but efforts at addressing it come slow. “It’s frustrating,” said District Manager Rafael Salamanca. While he works to obtain resources from the city for the area, he said that there is a lack of support from the neighborhood at the polls.
The community board sent out cars to get voters registered in the past weeks, but cannot do much more – it does not have the official authority to implement laws or campaigns. Salamanca asked elected officials to act. “I think we have to do a better job at educating the youth on voting,” he said.
One proposal recently came from Assemblyman Marcos Crespo. In August he announced the campaign “Bring your child to vote” in order familiarize children with the process of voting. On Tuesday, however, children were only rarely seen at the polls in Hunts Point.
Although the voting sites were empty in the neighborhood, at least two residents talked about the primary, while they leaned against the fence of the Bright Temple Church under the grey afternoon sky.
“All these people sell dreams,” said Arnold Price, head trustee of the church. “The renewal here is just a facelift, the foundations remain the same. It’s like walking through the belly of the beast.”
He had not voted yet, neither had the other man, the cook, Charles Jackson. The politician they would elect needs to focus on the community, they both said. “I don’t see that in any candidate,” said Jackson.
Even without many voters, some candidates still declared victories. Maria del Carmen Arroyo, for example, won the City Council seat with more than a two-thirds majority. Sounds impressive, but in fact, translates to only about 4,400 votes across council district 17, which also includes parts of Mott Haven, Port Morris, Melrose and Longwood.
The Arroyo campaign declined to comment on the issue of low turnout.