Update the Vote | Big Bold Cities

Update the Vote

Using tech to better capture community priorities

three colored squaresUpdate the Vote


Participatory Budgeting in New York City (PBNYC) is the largest and fastest-growing participatory budgeting process in the United States. PBNYC was founded in 2011 by four members of the New York City Council, in partnership with the Participatory Budgeting Project, Community Voices Heard, and other community organizations. During the participatory budgeting cycle, each NYC Council Member who chooses to participate contributes at least $1 million from his or her district’s capital discretionary budget (funds for brick-and-mortar projects, as opposed to salary or other personnel expenses). Tens of thousands of people from all over the city participate in hundreds of neighborhood assemblies to brainstorm spending ideas. From these meetings, hundreds of participants go on to become “budget delegates” and work with their elected officials to create project proposals. Through a public vote, residents then decide which proposals to fund. Each participating Council Member guarantees funding for the projects that receive the most votes, until their participatory budgeting fund runs out. In collaboration with D21, PBNYC introduced digital voting in the 2015-16 cycle; this change has broadened participation and made voting and vote counting more efficient.

Democratic Challenge  

The voting systems used by most people in the world would be recognizable to the Ancient Greeks, who voted with secret ‘ballots’ by dropping a pebble into one of two urns. In more and more contexts, an analog voting system that gives citizens a binary choice between parties or candidates, every four to six years, is not sufficient to meet citizens’ rising demands for and expectations of more responsive and consultative governance. 

How Did They Do It?   

New Yorkers are busy, they speak lots of languages, and many are not eligible to vote in local elections. So PBNYC has works to engage as many residents as possible in participating council districts. Efforts include:

  • Opening voting to all residents at least 11 years old or at least in 6th grade, regardless of citizenship status;
  • Translating ballots into 16 languages other than English; 
  • Utilizing outreach organizations to conduct Get Out The Vote (GOTV) campaigns in neighborhoods with historically low rates of participation; 
  • Partnering with groups like Arts and Democracy, the High Line and others to engage artistic communities; and
  • Establishing “pop-up” voting locations outside of religious and community institutions.

For the 2015-16 budgeting cycle, the Council went one big step further—it allowed digital ballots in all 28 participating districts, with help from the voting-innovation firm D21

  • In all 28 districts, a new digital system was established to help administer the election. This standardized voter registration and allowed voters to visit any polling location in the city and cast a ballot for projects in their home district. The system also streamlined the ballot counting process, reducing it from 23 to three days.
  • 11 districts offered the option of voting online from a personal device, after the voter registered in person.
  • Five districts used D21’s technology to crowdsource project ideas at neighborhood meetings. In Queens, this facilitated the participation of over 600 people.

How’s It Going?   

During the vote week in 2016, the digital ballot allowed hundreds of voters to vote “remotely” from a polling site outside their home district. In addition to convenience for voters, this helped the city save money by printing thousands fewer unused ballots than in 2015. 

During the 2016-17 cycle, participatory budgeting engaged 102,800 New Yorkers across 31 Council Districts, allocating over $40 million in Capital funds. The process saw a 45 percent increase in the number of voters from the previous cycle, due in part to the online voting option and increased outreach.

PBNYC continues to spur innovation, using interactive maps to solicit ideas and open data that allows other groups to build transparency tools.


Inclusion. Voter turnout has not increased proportionally across all groups, so the city is now focused on ways to use tech to increase participation from marginalized groups. This is consistent with the Urban Justice Center’s evaluation of the 2014-15 participatory budgeting cycle, which recommended that digital voting sites be supplemented by paper ballots and made accessible to non-English-speaking voters, to maintain a focus on the participation of traditionally disenfranchised New Yorkers. The report showed that people of color, lower-income residents and non-English speakers were more likely to cast votes during PB than during local elections, and that outreach through schools, door knocking and community groups was a more effective way to reach those voters than online and social-media outreach.

Innovation Point of Contact

Marissa Yanni
Participatory Budgeting Manager

Who Else Is Trying This


Estonia piloted online voting in municipal elections in 2005 and held the world’s first online parliamentary elections in 2007. Online voting builds on Estonia’s universal citizen ID system, which gives each person a digital identity. Researchers have highlighted serious vulnerabilities in this path-breaking system. Read more

Boston, Massachusetts

The “Youth Lead the Change” participatory budgeting program is open to residents aged 12-25. The program allocates $1 million in public funds and has used “Knapsack Voting,” a more sophisticated way of asking for voter priorities. This voting method gives voters the same constraints and trade-offs as policymakers—i.e. they have to choose a group of projects to spend down the total budget, like choosing which items will fit into a knapsack. The city used technology to create a compromise proposal with the most popular projects, including upgrades for a park space, public art displays, and laptops for a local high school. Read more

Multiple U.S. Cities

Researchers at Stanford built an open-source digital voting platform in 2012. The platform was originally designed for participatory budgeting in a ward of Chicago, and is intended to be used in person at a polling booth, supplemented by paper ballots. It has been used in more than 25 elections around the U.S. and now has capability for approval voting, knapsack voting, mapping, ranked voting and comparison voting. Read more