Voter registrations are surging in Erie County in anticipation of the most significant New York presidential primaries in a generation on April 19.
Friday is the last day to register to vote before the primary, and voters can only do that by mail, given that the Erie County Board of Elections is closed for Good Friday.
But as of midday Thursday, Democrats – who long have held a huge registration advantage in the county – had registered 3,345 new voters in the county since Dec. 1 of last year, up from 1,237 from the same period a year earlier. Republicans, meanwhile, registered 1,606 new voters, up from 776 a year earlier.
Leaders from both parties said the surge of registrations is just the first sign of increased interest in the New York primaries, which – for the first time in years – promise to result in meaningful outcomes in the races for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations.
The primary calendar and the state of the two nomination battles practically guarantee a higher level of interest in the New York races, which, party leaders said, may very well prompt visits to Buffalo by Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton; her rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont; Republican front-runner Donald Trump and other candidates.
The only significant primary in the nation between now and April 19 is the April 4 battle in Wisconsin, meaning New York – the only state voting on April 19 – will receive increasing attention the next 10 days and then be the focus of the presidential battle for the following two weeks.
Clinton has a lead of more than 300 delegates over Sanders, but she’s still far short of the 2,383 delegates needed to grab the Democratic nomination. That means she is expected to fight hard in New York, the state she represented in the Senate for eight years, which offers 291 delegates, 12 percent of the total needed for the nomination.
Similarly on the Republican side, Trump enjoys a big lead over his closest rival, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, but it remains unclear whether he can collect the needed 1,237 delegates before the Republican convention in Cleveland in July. So Trump is expected to fight fiercely for votes in upstate New York, where he last month claimed to be “the most popular person that’s ever lived.” The state offers 95 Republican delegates, 7.7 percent of the total needed for the nomination.
As for voter registration efforts, Sanders’ supporters seem to be leading the way. Brian Nowak, a grass-roots organizer for Sanders in Erie County, estimated that volunteers have registered about a thousand voters so far, with 400 coming just in the past week.
“This is really an unprecedented number of voter registrations, and that is good, because we know that when there’s high turnout, Bernie does well,” Nowak said.
Sanders supporters have been going to several local college campuses to get new voters to sign up, which has been a familiar tactic for the democratic socialist from Vermont, who has proved to be particularly popular among young voters.
In addition to the grass-roots effort, the Sanders campaign has sent organizers into the state to register voters, said Karthik Ganapathy, a campaign spokesman. He said Sanders expects to compete in the New York primary and that he will likely campaign across the state.
The Clinton campaign has not focused quite so heavily on voter registrations, leaving it up to local organizers to decide whether a registration campaign is needed in any given area, said Meredith Thatcher, a spokesperson for the Clinton campaign in New York.
Jeremy Zellner, the Erie County Democratic chairman, said no special voter registration efforts are underway on behalf of Clinton locally. Nevertheless, Clinton already has an active campaign effort in Western New York, which launched at an event Wednesday night at the Larkin Building attended by 110 people.
The Clinton campaign is more focused on pulling likely supporters to the polls on April 19, and a key part of that effort could be an appearance by the candidate herself.
“I think Buffalo is a special place for the Clintons,” Zellner said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she comes here.”
On the Republican side, the voter registration increase hasn’t matched the gain on the Democratic side, which is no surprise, given that Democrats typically outnumber Republicans in the county by almost 2 to 1. But Nicholas Langworthy, the Erie County Republican chairman, said the party has seen “a tremendous uptick in interest” amid the heated battle among Trump, Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Both Republican headquarters and the Erie County Board of Elections report a steady number of voters calling in hopes of changing their registration from Democratic or Independent to Republican, just so they can vote for Trump.
But they’re out of luck: Under a New York State election law aimed at preventing mischievous last-minute party-switching, voters who change their party registration Friday will not see the change take effect until after this fall’s general election.
“When people call and we tell them this, they understand, but they’re not happy,” said Robin Sion, a deputy election commissioner in Erie County and a Republican.
A Trump headquarters is expected to open soon in downtown Buffalo, and Trump is expected to hold rallies in Buffalo and other upstate cities.
The Erie County Republican Committee will be actively pushing the Trump campaign, which is likely to also send organizers into the state.
The other Republican candidates are likely to travel to the region, too, Langworthy said, noting that Cruz had just spent two days in New York City, where he told reporters: “The people of New York have suffered under the liberal, left-wing values of New York politicians.”
Langworthy said New York is likely to receive more attention from the candidates this year than it has since 2000, when then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush defeated Sen. John McCain in a heated battle for the nomination.
“This is our moment in the sun,” Langworthy said.
How to register to vote in Erie County
• Click on “Register to Vote” link of Erie County Board of Elections website.
• Download and complete the registration form.
• Mail application to the Erie County Board of Elections, 134 W. Eagle St., Buffalo, NY 14202. Be sure your application is postmarked by Friday, the application deadline. Post offices are open on Good Friday; the Board of Elections will be closed, so registrations will only be accepted by mail on Friday.
• Board of Elections will be open for absentee voting each working day through April 18; the application is also on the board’s website.