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It happened without anyone noticing -- but at some point in the past year, Buffalo's largest and most affluent suburb turned "blue."

Erie County Board of Elections figures show that Amherst, long a Republican stronghold, has tipped Democratic by a margin of 84 registered voters. Precisely 31,046 Democrats and 30,962 Republicans now call Amherst home, an Election Board spokesman said. All of this leads to "A supercharged election process -- either party can win," said Democratic Town Chairman Dennis Ward.

His Republican counterpart agrees.

"Amherst is changing. Definitely changing. Republicans are going to have to work harder," Marshall Wood Jr. said Thursday.

According to Ward, however, his party's lead in registrations may be temporary.

"There's no question that the town is becoming more Democratic," he said. But he expects his party's tiny edge in registrations to disappear in the coming months.

This is because two of Amherst's election districts include many of the student dormitories for the University at Buffalo's north campus, and Democrates far outnumber Republicans there. In a presidential election year, such as 2004, registrations in these two districts "shoot up and then they come down. It's a little bit unusual, but it's a bubble after the presidential election," Ward says.

Nevertheless, after years of slowly gaining on their opponents, Amherst Democrats can now say they are at least as numerous as Amherst Republicans. Four years ago -- when red state Republicans and blue state Democrats became a part of the lexicon -- town Democrats trailed Republicans by 2,129 voters, 29,538 Republicans to 27,409 Democrats, according to 2001 election records.

Another indication of the town's balanced electorate is the block of registered unaffiliated voters, which now totals 14,630.

In any case, Ward calls Amherst a "truly competitive town."

"At this point, it is very close to being dead even," he said.

The situation results in what Ward calls "a great deal of energy on the Town Board," a body known for its public squabbling.

So why doesn't Democratic strength show up at the polls? The current Town Board has five Republicans and two Democrats.

The lopsided Republican majority is a vestige of history, according to Ward.

"Five of the seven members go back to the time when the gap between the parties was significantly different," he said.

But Republican Chairman Wood says his party does a better job of getting its voters to the polls.

Ward certainly doesn't agree with that, but he indicated that voter turnout is all-important.

"The Democrats' position is, the better the turnout, the better the Democrats do," he said.


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