The evidence is only sporadic and anecdotal, but Erie County election officials were able to characterize the voter turnout shortly before noon today.
“I would just say it’s light, maybe light to moderate,” Democratic Elections Commissioner Dennis E. Ward said. “We’ll get a better sense of it later in the day.”
Anecdotal reports from inspectors in the field suggested that the turnout was heaviest in Amherst, Hamburg and Lancaster, and light in the city of Buffalo.
“It’s probably not a surprise to anyone,” Ward said. “In places where they have an energetic race, they have a larger turnout.”
Based on the early returns, election officials believe that some of the suburbs with the hottest races may have turnout around 35 percent, while the city of Buffalo figure might be in the low 20s.
Will the turnout at least exceed the 28 percent turnout figure from four years ago, when similar races were being waged?
“My gut feeling would be that it would be a little bit above that, but I’m not certain,” Ward said.
Earlier, the first two people to cast their ballots at the Marine Drive Apartments along Buffalo’s waterfront showed up at 6:19 and 6:21 a.m.
All the early arrivals were proud to vote, to exercise their constitutional privilege, but a little dismayed about the low voter turnout expected today.
So what would be a respectable turnout?
The answer, unfortunately, lies in the range of 30 to 40 percent of registered voters, based on recent history.
“I think it’s a disgrace,” said William W. “Doc” Dawson Jr., 72, the first person to vote at Fillmore 8 in the Marine Drive Apartments. “One hundred percent of the people who served in the Armed Forces, 100 percent of them showed up to fight for all other Americans’ right to vote. It’s pathetic that these people can’t get off their butts, read a newspaper, watch the news and be informed.”
It’s not rocket science, trying to project today’s local voter turnout.
Forget the last three presidential elections – in 2004, 2008 and 2012 – when voter turnout in Erie County hovered around the 75 percent mark.
And forget the 2010 gubernatorial election, when Buffalo’s own Carl P. Paladino’s spirited race for governor helped draw some 54 percent of county voters to the polls.
The true litmus test for today’s local elections is whether the voter turnout can exceed the 28 percent of Erie County registered voters who bothered to head to the polls in November 2009.
In the four-year cycle of elections, the “off years” – 2005, 2009, 2013 – tend to offer the greatest challenge for attracting voters, because of the absence of a race for president, governor or county executive.
That’s why Michael Beck, one of the elections inspectors at Ellicott 33 and Fillmore 8, said as the polls opened, “If we get 30 to 35 percent here, we’ll have a good day.”
The major races this year are for Buffalo mayor, the Erie County Legislature, county sheriff and comptroller, and suburban supervisors and Town Board members. There also are some judicial races and six statewide propositions, including one on expanding casino gambling.
The question is whether this year’s races have generated enough heat to bring more voters to the polls than the 28 percent four years ago.
“I think and hope we’re going to do better than that this year,” Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner said Monday. “I think we’re going to have a better turnout in the suburbs, because of the high-profile races there.”
While presidential races obviously grab the spotlight and bring out larger numbers of voters, Zellner cited the potential for municipal elections, which can touch people’s lives more directly than those for state and national offices.
“People have the ability to go to the polls and change the direction of a town or city government,” he said.
Ralph M. Mohr, Erie County’s Republican elections commissioner, wasn’t quite so optimistic about this year’s turnout exceeding the 2009 figures.
“I think it’s going to be pretty much about the same,” Mohr said. “I don’t see any great excitement or hot race that will create a turnout higher than what we had four years ago.”
County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy offered a similar assessment.
“We are anticipating a very low turnout, because there’s a lack of perceived enthusiasm for the top-of-the-ticket races,” he said.
In Erie County, according to many observers, that includes what’s expected to be a lopsided race for Buffalo mayor, along with contests sheriff and comptroller. “I think what’s lacking … is a serious debate of the issues,” Mohr said.
But the strength of today’s ballot, in both Erie and Niagara counties, appears to be the municipal races, with observers most frequently citing Amherst, Hamburg, Orchard Park, the Tonawandas, Lancaster and Niagara Falls.
“Most of the first-ring suburbs have competitive races for town office,” Langworthy said. “We have a lot of towns that have high-profile races, and that will drive voter turnout. This is the layer of government closest to the people – the town and city government.”
No matter which side of the aisle they’re on, locals officials see a discouraging trend in the long-range prospects for voter turnout.
Any year’s voter totals often hinge on one or two hot races. For example, in the last two gubernatorial years, in 2006 and 2010, the percentage of registered Erie County voters going to the polls rose from 48 percent in 2006 to 54 percent in 2010. Much of that, though, can be attributed to Paladino’s presence in the gubernatorial race.
In the last nine years, other than the Paladino race and the presidential elections, no year has seen as many as half the registered voters going to the polls in Erie County; the 28 percent in 2009 is by far the lowest figure.
Zellner was bemoaning some of the recent negative campaigning in local races.
“I think it turns people off,” he said. “The degrading of public service makes people think ‘I can’t make a difference, because they’re all the same, and nothing’s going to change.’ It’s a cynical view of government and politics.”
Clearly, events such as the recent partial shutdown of the federal government because of partisan gridlock in Washington have done nothing to change that cynical view.
Mohr doesn’t like what he sees in the long-term numbers.
“It is discouraging, to an extent, to see the drop-off in voter turnout,” he said. “This is something that has been going on in the last decade.”
Local officials can only hope that changes today.
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