Four years ago, Mickey Kearns lost the Democratic primary for mayor in a landslide. He garnered 14,866 votes.
Earlier this month, Byron Brown won the Democratic primary for mayor in a landslide. He received 14,433 votes.
In other words, more people voted for Kearns four years ago than for Brown this year.
That’s what happens when four out of five voters stay at home on primary day. This year’s turnout was a paltry 20 percent, well below any other mayoral primary in recent history, where up to 60 percent of registered Democrats cast ballots.
Much has been made of the low turnout, and many explain it by Bernie Tolbert’s weak challenge to the incumbent. There’s something to that, but the reason for the malaise goes much deeper.
Buffalo is a city that is increasingly turning away from electoral politics, an analysis by Investigative Post has concluded.
More than 70,000 city Democrats voted in the mayoral primaries during James Griffin’s tenure. Those numbers have plunged since then, bottoming out at 21,143 for this year’s Sept. 10 primary.
Turnout for School Board elections has gone from bad to worse since the city adopted an elected board in 1974. Only 7 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the citywide race for three at-large board seats in 2009. That’s the lowest turnout of the at-large elections staged over the years.
It’s hard to gauge turnout for Common Council races because incumbents ran unopposed in five of nine districts the last time a Democratic primary was held two years ago. But it takes a lot fewer votes these days to win a Council seat than it used to.
“There’s a lot of apathy, clearly,” said Fillmore Common Council Member David Franczyk, the city’s longest-standing elected official with 26 years on the job.
“Civic engagement is down and that’s why you have poor turnout. People don’t believe their vote matters,” said Jeremy Zellner, chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party.
Turnout started to tumble in 1993
It wasn’t always this way.
Back in 1977, nearly 73,000 registered Democrats – 60 percent of the party faithful – voted in the heated mayoral primary involving Assemblyman Arthur O. Eve, Corporation Counsel Les Faschio and State Sen. James D. Griffin.
The primary engaged the city’s two most powerful voting blocs – African-Americans mostly on the East Side, and Irish and other ethnic whites in South Buffalo. Eve and Griffin, both regarded as mavericks, represented those two constituencies, respectively, while Faschio was the choice of party headquarters.
James W. Pitts, who won election that year to represent the Ellicott District and went on to serve 26 years on the Common Council, recalled Griffin and Eve as strong, charismatic personalities running at a time when the city was in transition.
“You had people who were engaged and focused on change. At this particular time, that excitement is not there,” he said.
Eve won that primary, only to lose in the general election to Griffin, who ran as a Conservative.
The incumbent Griffin avoided a Democratic primary four years later. But Griffin faced primary challengers in 1985 and 1989, and those races brought out nearly 72,000 voters each time.
Turnout began to tumble in 1993, when State Sen. Anthony M. Masiello and Council Member at Large Eugene M. Fahey vied for the party nomination after Griffin decided not to seek a fifth term. Some 43 percent of Democrats voted that year, down from 58 percent in the previous primary.
Turnout continued to drop in the next two primaries won by Masiello – 31 percent in 1997, when he was challenged by Griffin and Pitts, and 29 percent in 2001, when Council Member at Large Beverly Gray provided the opposition.
Turnout in that latter primary amounted to less than half of the spirited race of 1977. The decline continued in 2005, when Brown and attorney Kevin Gaughan competed for the open mayor’s seat. Only 26 percent of Democrats voted in the primary.
The numbers picked up to 37 percent four years ago when Kearns, then representing South Buffalo on the Council, challenged Brown. Brown won with 63 percent of the vote, but Kearns captured more votes in losing than Brown did in winning this year.
Voter apathy seems to be biggest factor
A handful of factors explain the precipitous decline in turnout.
The Common Council is no longer elected the same year as the mayor. Council members served two-year terms until 2011 and elections coincided with the mayor’s race. Their terms were extended to four years and elections were staggered: Council races were last staged in 2011 and will be held again in 2015. The next mayoral primary is in 2017.
The change in the election schedule has suppressed turnout for both mayoral and Council races to an undetermined degree.
Another factor were the generally anemic campaigns conducted by Brown’s three primary opponents – Gaughan in 2005, Kearns in 2009 and Tolbert this year.
“The level of turnout is a reflection of his opponents,” Pitts said.
He also noted that the racial undertones of primaries during the Griffin era are less pronounced these days. That has contributed to lower turnouts.
General voter apathy is probably the biggest factor, fueled by the public’s disillusionment with politicians, said Warren K. Galloway, chairman of the local group Republicans of Color, who served in the administration of Erie County Executive Joel Giambra.
“People are turned off by elected officials,” he said.
Pitts said a lack of charisma is a part of the problem.
“Dullness is out. Charisma is in,” he said.
The apathy is borne out in the numbers.
An average of 72,500 Democrats voted in mayoral primaries during the Griffin era. It dropped to 40,800 during Masiello’s time and declined further to 31,000 during the Brown era.
School Board races see similar decline
Turnout in citywide School Board elections, which involve voters from all parties, also has dropped over the years, according to Board of Election records which, for some unexplained reason, do not include results from the 1979 election.
Citywide races for at-large seats attracted an average of 21,200 voters, or 13 percent, from 1974 to 1999. Turnout dropped in 2004 to some 15,600 voters, or 10 percent. Five years later, those numbers dropped again, to a record low 10,700 voters, or 7 percent.
While much was made of an uptick in School Board voting this spring involving district seats, the turnout was in line with historic patterns. The turnout this spring was 9 percent, the average for all board elections involving both at-large and district seats dating to 1974.
That means that candidates have won district seats capturing as few as 1,000 votes. Council seats can also be won with a fraction of the vote needed a generation ago.
Franczyk recalled a time when he needed more than 3,000 votes to win his district Council seat. Two years ago, he won in a landslide with just 936 votes.
“The numbers have severely dropped,” he said.
What’s it going to take to bring more voters to the polls?
From a strictly political perspective, compelling candidates and competitive elections would help. Keep in mind that 69 percent of city voters turned out in the most recent presidential election pitting Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, evidence that voters can find their way to the ballot box when they think something is at stake.
But declining turnout in city elections has coincided with a growing disengagement with other aspects of civic life.
Qualified candidates for public office are harder to come by. A growing number of block clubs exist in name only. More and more community organizations are struggling. Parental involvement lags at many schools.
“Civic engagement is frowned upon. People are timid and afraid to get involved,” said Zellner.
Added Michael Kuzma, a lawyer and community activist who works for Franczyk: “I’ve seen a dramatic drop-off in activity. A lot of people have given up. They think it’s futile.”
Jim Heaney is editor and executive director of Investigative Post, a non-profit investigative reporting center based in Buffalo.