NYC Participatory Budgeting Process Gets Another Upgrade

This year, every participating district will have digital ballots at polling sites, and in 11 districts, people can pre-register and vote online at a later time.

Starting this Saturday, New Yorkers in more than half of New York City’s 51 council districts will help decide how to spend at least one million dollars from the public budget in each district—more than $30 million in total. From dog runs to new computers for public schools to sidewalk extensions that make the streets safer for pedestrians, Participatory Budgeting (PB) lets New Yorkers vote for the projects they want to see in their community. This year, for the first time, the city is offering digital voting options in all 28 participating districts, and in 11 districts, residents will have the option to pre-register in-person and vote online at a later time.

Democracy 2.1, the organization working with the city on PB, has also addressed concerns about efficiency and security by redesigning the ballot to make it more scanner-friendly, acquiring better scanning software, and creating a registration application so council members’ staffers are verifying voters in the same way in every district. (Democracy 2.1, or D21, is an organizational member of Civic Hall.)

This is the city’s fifth year of doing participatory budgeting, although cities in Brazil have been doing PB since 1989. When it began in New York City, only four council members participated. This year, 28 council districts are running PB, four more than last year. Increased interest has raised more questions about fair representation, which D21 has sought to address in the year and a half since they first partnered with the city.

Charts showing the growth of PB in New York City, compiled by the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center with the PBNYC Research Team as part of their 2015 report.

Charts showing the growth of PB in New York City, compiled by the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center with the PBNYC Research Team as part of their 2015 report.

Last year, they tried digital ballots for the first time, and experimented with alternative voting interfaces as part of a research project with Stanford. This year, D21 expanded the digital ballot initiative and worked to make the process both more inclusive and more efficient. For the first time, districts polled residents online as well as off—using one of D21’s special polling algorithms for the online vote—about their project preferences before the projects were even sent to the city for technical review. Having an online vote meant that people could participate in the deliberation stage even if work or other obligations kept them from attending meetings in person.

“By the time you get to the final vote you’ve already reduced the number of projects that only appeal to a small number of people,” D21’s Lex Paulson explained to Civicist. “The point is not to exclude the three people who care about dog runs but to open the door even further.”

According to Paulson, making the first stage of the process more inclusive means that fewer people will show up to vote next week and wonder how and why certain projects got on the ballot, and why their interests weren’t represented.

The pre-registration process this year, which will run in only 11 districts, should make the process more inclusive as well. It will allow district staffers to recruit participants earlier and longer; some districts started pre-registering last week. Once the voter has been entered into the registration app, they receive a unique pin code and ballot url via text or email. When voting begins, they’ll get another reminder to cast their ballot.

The expansion of participatory budgeting was one of the city’s accomplishments trumpeted by New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito in her State of the City address in February, and was used as a rallying cry for additional innovations in regular elections as well:

PB is a laboratory for what an enfranchised voting populace is all about…in the City Council’s last PB cycle, we tested diverse strategies to bring democracy to voters – including reminder texts that say when, where, and how to cast a PB vote. The result was unprecedented participation across all sectors of our City – especially among our youth. In fact, 12 percent of the total PB ballots were cast by New Yorkers under the age of 18!

(Depending on the district, residents as young as 14 or 16 can participate in PB.)

Building on her praise of text reminders, Mark-Viverito promised to bring similar reminders via text and email to regular New York elections as well, although as I reported for Civicist, making that a reality is not as easy as it might seem.

Hollie Russon Gilman, Civicist contributer and the author of Democracy Reinvented: Participatory Budgeting and Civic Innovation in America, said of New York’s PB effort: “Within the U.S., this is cutting edge, especially in terms of scale.”

“Other cities have explored SMS voting and digital pilots but not at this breadth or depth,” she added. “Globally there have been several PB [cycles] conducted solely online…in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, online participation was three to five times higher than participation rates in face-to-face rounds of PB occurring in the same year.”