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‘We haven’t had a lull yet’: Voter turnout around Erie County is strong

Voter turnout ran above average Tuesday, with some election inspectors saying primary turnout was the most robust they’ve witnessed since Barack Obama ran against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination back in 2008.

“We haven’t had a lull yet,” said Elizabeth Kerling, an election inspector at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo, always one of the busiest polling places in the City of Buffalo.

Erie County Board of Elections Commissioner Leonard Lenihan said that based on his visit to polling locations throughout the day, he wouldn’t be surprised if a third of all eligible voters cast their ballots on Tuesday.

“And it might go higher,” he said, pointing out that such a turnout would rival the 2008 Obama-Clinton primary race.

Unlike many other counties across Western and Upstate New York, which open their polls at noon, Erie County’s polling places opened at 6 a.m. And at busier locations, people have been steadily voting since that first hour.

Erie County Board of Elections Commissioner Leonard Lenihan said that when he visited the Unitarian Universalist Church, which represents five or six election districts, at 9:30 a.m., it had already recorded voter turnout of 15 percent.

“That’s huge,” Lenihan said.

Lenihan said that at most of the polling places he’s dropped in on throughout the day, voter turnout seemed strong. One smaller Cheektowaga polling place reported turnout of 20 percent by mid-morning. And by late morning, a West Seneca polling place reported voter turnout of roughly 30 percent, Lenihan said.

Nearly halfway through the day, a particularly busy Lancaster polling spot that represented six election districts had already registered voter turnout in the high teens. That was telling, Lenihan said, because it was a working-class area that typically gets a major influx of voters after work.

Not all polling places saw big numbers. East Side polling locations, for instance, remained fairly quiet, he said. Other polling spots saw peaks and lulls throughout the day.

But overall, turnout numbers have run higher than normal.

“And why not?” Lenihan said. “This is relevant because both nominations are in play. The residents here have gone to rallies for Hillary, for Bernie, for Donald Trump.”

Between the attention given to the candidates on mainstream and social media, and the active campaigning and personal appearances by Bernie Sanders, Trump and Hillary Clinton in Buffalo over the past couple of weeks, Democrats and Republicans had more motivation than usual to fill out a ballot on Tuesday, political observers said. The mild, sunny weather Tuesday was also a help.

Michael Caputo, a local Republican strategist working on Trump’s campaign, said many voters who went to the polls Tuesday probably left frustrated after discovering they couldn’t cast a ballot for their desired candidate. He said those supporting Trump and Sanders were more likely to have been unaware of the state’s closed primary system, which requires voters to be registered with a specific party.

Veteran election inspector Laurie Boyack, who has staffed the Unitarian Universalist Church location for seven years, said she had multiple conversations with would-be voters who thought they were eligible to vote – and signed affidavits to that effect – but probably weren’t because they were not registered with a party.

“They swear on their mother’s grave that they’ve always been a Democrat,” Boyack said.

A number of first-time primary voters said they’d never bothered to vote in a primary before because they weren’t as in touch with the candidates or the issues as they are now.

Buffalo resident Nicholas Palermo, 24, said that as a registered Republican, he doesn’t take much interest in local politics and long believed his vote in a New York State primary wouldn’t matter. Describing himself as an “extremely blue-collar” factory and construction worker, Palermo said he was pleased to vote for Trump and support a candidate rejected by the political establishment.

City residents Veronica Dorman, 29, and her husband Michael, 31, said they had also bypassed political primaries until this year’s. On Tuesday, these two Democrats pushed a stroller with their 4-month-old daughter to the Unitarian Universalist Church and voted for Sanders. Michael Dorman had attended the Sanders rally at the University at Buffalo.

As two people who don’t follow the news on TV and are rarely aware of local candidates, they said, they were much more cognizant of this year’s primary and the flurry of conversations on social media.

“It’s kind of in your face more,” Veronica Dorman said. “You think about it more.”

News Staff Reporter Aaron Besecker contributed to this report. email: stan@buffnews.com