Dems Push to Register Voters in Staten Island, the Most Republican Borough

A new generation of Staten Island activists is hitting the streets this fall to turn out voters of color in New York’s whitest, most Republican borough. Galvanized by Black Lives Matter, dozens of young people on the North Shore — a cluster of predominantly nonwhite communities — are pushing their families and neighbors to get politically involved.

Take Quincy Baker who, at age 17, isn’t old enough to vote. For the past month, Baker has been handing out flyers urging people to register for the Nov. 3 election.

“Your vote is like your voice,” he said. “There’s strength in numbers.”

Isaiah Buffong, left, and Kevin Walton review a mock ballot at a North Shore event on voting registration, cosponsored with the Democratic Party. (Photo/Eduardo Cuevas)

The island is bisected by the Staten Island Expressway – which some locals call the Mason-Dixon Line. The South Shore, with around 199,000 active registered voters, is more white, affluent and Republican. The North Shore had around 93,000 voters as of February, or about 32% of the total number of voters on Staten Island.

The newly minted activists have coalesced around two racial-justice organizations. One group, the Young Leaders of Staten Island, formed after police killed George Floyd. The other, the Staten Island NAACP Youth Council, was dormant until several years ago, when it was revived in response to the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island at the hands of a city police officer.

Last month, activists distributed flyers around Port Richmond announcing a Black Voter Day, an initiative launched by the NAACP and other organizations.

One of them went to Helen Sona, originally from Cameroon. She proudly posted it on the door of Yohgema’s Elegant Treasures, her custom dress shop, explaining that she has been politicized by President Trump’s immigration policies.

“We belong here, especially us Black and brown people,” she said. “It’s a life-and-death issue.”

Over the summer, Young Leaders held “Burgers and Ballots” events, registering voters with the lure of free fast food. More recently, they hosted a ballot tutorial at an early voting center in Stapleton.

Guided by poll workers, Kevin Walton, 24, walked through a simulation of the voting process, from signing in to scanning a ballot. 

“People died for this,” Walton said. “We got them to come march, but we’ve got to get them to come here, too.”

When turnout decreased in 2016 on the North Shore and increased on the South Shore, the borough swung to Republicans, the Staten Island Advance reported. In the previous election, Staten Island went for former President Barack Obama. Two years ago, Democrat Max Rose unseated a Republican incumbent for the congressional seat encompassing all of the borough and southwest Brooklyn. He now faces a competitive challenge from GOP Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis, who is endorsed by Trump. To win again, Rose must turn out North Shore voters while attracting moderate voters south of the expressway, according to Jonathan Yedin, a Democratic strategist.

Young North Shore activists have pinned their hopes on a revitalized voter base. Beyond their efforts, Black Lives Matter and the pandemic could also lead to deeper  political engagement, said Richard Flanagan, a political scientist at the College of Staten Island. “It’s definitely made the grassroots more alive,” he added. But without more polling, it’s hard to tell what the future will hold. “We haven’t seen that one-to-one conversion into the political realm with regard to elections or policy,” he said.

One night in late September, Akiel, 14, and Aliya, 9, new NAACP Youth Council members, canvassed Stapleton with their mother, Safiya Williams, 34, until they ran out of flyers. 

As the children raced between storefronts, Williams said that, though she’s voted in the past, she still didn’t fully understand the process and was glad North Shore activists were helping demystify it.

“I’m bringing awareness about voting,” she said. “But I also need someone to teach me how to vote.”