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How low can voter turnout go? Erie County nosedives to 24.5%

When political analysts added up turnout figures from the Nov. 3 elections, they could find only one word to describe a year when a mere 24.5 percent of registered voters showed up at the polls in Erie County:

Abysmal.

And after drilling deeper into the numbers and factoring in the thousands who never even register to vote, they calculated that only about 17 percent of the county’s eligible population actually voted. Refining the numbers even more, they estimated that a mere 9 percent of that population provided the majority that determined this year’s election for Erie County executive.

And none can find words lower than “abysmal” to describe the voting.

As politicians, pundits and voters ask why the lowest total in Erie County history cast ballots for county executive this year, they cite several factors:

• A less-than-scintillating race between Democratic incumbent Mark C. Poloncarz and his Republican challenger, Assemblyman Raymond W. Walter. For some, there was a perception that the election was over before it started.

• County Legislature elections in which six of the 11 incumbents faced no major-party opponents, tamping down turnout even more.

• A lack of opponents against entrenched Republicans in several towns, prompting complaints that the tactics of suburban Democratic leaders mirror a familiar accusation leveled against the Buffalo GOP. Some now say Democratic leaders deliberately failed to field candidates in traditional GOP turf to discourage turnout, much like the complaint made for years against Republicans in overwhelmingly Democratic Buffalo.

• Distrust of government, apathy and a general “Who cares?” attitude among most voters.

Pollster Barry Zeplowitz, of Buffalo, who conducts surveys nationwide primarily for Republicans, said he finds it increasingly difficult to find respondents who even plan to vote.

“You see about 17 percent of the people actually voting, and this fraction is determining the future of our community,” he said. “That’s really a sad commentary on our whole political system.”

Michael V. Haselswerdt, a Canisius College political scientist, agrees that plummeting turnouts represent an ominous trend. “It just seems this year is qualitatively different,” he said. “It reflects a real disconnect from government, and even the importance of it.”

It wasn’t always this way.

When Republican Edward A. Rath defeated Democrat Chester C. Gorski in 1960 for the first-ever election for county executive (granted, in a presidential year), turnout hit 92 percent.

But by the time Gorski’s son Dennis T. Gorski defeated Republican incumbent Edward J. Rutkowski in 1987, turnout fell to 67 percent.

It then dipped to 42 percent in 2011, when Poloncarz defeated Republican incumbent Chris Collins, before plunging to 24.5 percent this year.

Sharp contrast from past

The 2015 election figures leap out at political experts. The 139,302 votes cast for major-party candidates Poloncarz and Walter contrast with the 219,620 votes cast for Poloncarz and Collins just four years ago in a more competitive contest, according to county Board of Elections records.

County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy noted that Walter campaigned extensively and raised enough money to disseminate his message, and that party forces worked hard to turn out the GOP vote. But even after voters set a new low for countywide turnout in 2013, they bottomed out even more this year with 40,000 fewer. “No one forecast the turnout this year would be so low,” Langworthy said.

Critics say the GOP brought the situation upon itself by failing to field an “A level” candidate after top prospects such as County Clerk Christopher L. Jacobs and County Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw Jr. passed on challenging the popular Poloncarz.

Critics also said Walter’s centerpiece “fair share” sales tax plan failed to generate much excitement, noting that Poloncarz even carried the suburbs, which would have benefited most from the Walter plan, by more than 35,000 votes.

But if a perception of “Poloncarz inevitability” depressed turnout this year, Langworthy said, it was generated by the media. The chairman said that no public polls fed the perception of a noncompetitive contest but that the media “just surmised it.”

“The media’s contention that the top of the ticket was not in a competitive race did not help,” he said.

Langworthy also bristled over past criticism that the Buffalo GOP consistently fails to challenge entrenched Democrats in a city where Republicans are outnumbered by a 6-1 ratio. The same phenomenon this year guided the towns, he said, only in reverse.

No Democrats competed in Town Board elections in Alden, Brant, Sardinia, Aurora, Clarence, Collins, Concord, Elma and Wales, nor for City Council in Lackawanna. Neither did any Democrats file for supervisor in Aurora, Clarence, Collins, Newstead or Wales. Several other towns cross-endorsed Republicans and Democrats to result in no contest being waged.

‘Just couldn’t find anybody’

“If you look at the entire map of Erie County, there is a massive swath of area where there were no (Democratic) candidates,” Langworthy said. “That was very strategically designed to hold down the Republican turnout.

“I believe the lack of competitive elections in the suburbs and rural towns strongly led to a depressed turnout countywide.”

Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner rejects the argument, contending that “we never play that game.”

“We always look for candidates, but in a place like Brant, we just couldn’t find anybody,” he said, adding that Langworthy’s argument is “tough to make” when Democrats proved competitive in a Republican town such as Grand Island.

While Republicans fielded a Common Council candidate in the city’s Delaware District for the first time since 1981, they may now harbor second thoughts. Party officials have long pointed to the futility of running their candidates in heavily Democratic Buffalo, and the GOP candidacy of Peter A. Rouff – well financed and with strong organization support – seems to bear them out. Democratic incumbent Joel P. Feroleto defeated Rouff, 3,443 to 1,421.

“While in the past there were concerted efforts by Democrats not to create races in the rural towns and suburbs and the Republicans in the city,” said county Republican Elections Commissioner Ralph M. Mohr, “sometimes you just can’t find candidates to run.”

“But a lot of deals get cut between local officials: ‘You leave us alone and we’ll leave you alone,’ ” Mohr added. “So you don’t have the races you naturally had in the past.”

Still, turnout hit only 26 percent even in Amherst, where hot races for Town Board and County Legislature dominated town politics throughout the fall. West Seneca led local towns in turnout, where the supervisor’s contest drew 31 percent of voters – still considered anemic by most standards.

2016 will be a barometer

Mohr pointed out that voter turnout fluctuates with the race at the top of the ballot. Presidential elections always produce the highest turnout, he said, followed by governor, county executive and county comptroller/clerk/sheriff. But this county executive year even fell dramatically below the 2013 midterm level that normally proves the lowest. Other factors, he said, are at play.

“It’s just a general apathy in the county and across the country,” he said. “People think their vote doesn’t count and all politicians are the same.”

Haselswerdt said the 2016 presidential election may prove a test as the normal turnout cycle is again scheduled to peak.

“If it goes back to normal range, this was a function of just being a lackadaisical year,” he said. “But if drops again, it’s something more.”

Zeplowitz looks ahead with no optimism. “Unless there is dramatic change, we’ll just get more shrinkage going forward,” he said. “Young people are not coming out. I’m pretty discouraged about the future.”

Haselswerdt said his political science classes at Canisius have tackled the low turnout subject in recent weeks, noting the questions it raises lead to hard-to-face answers. “If this were Iraq, what would they be saying?” he asked. “They’d say it’s not working.

“I have a feeling you can abuse the system significantly – like with our election system – and still have it be useful. It seems maintaining a democracy is a whole lot easier than starting one.”

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com