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WNY’s disturbing “who cares”

Amherst’s Barry Zeplowitz might know more about voting and how voters think than anybody in Western New York.

Since 1981, he’s been surveying voters as one of the nation’s foremost Republican pollsters. He’s polled for major organizations and businesses, congressmen and senators, and on the national scene, too. This year his downtown Buffalo firm is polling for the Right to Rise PAC backing Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign.

Zeplowitz plays in that kind of sandbox.

It was only natural, then, for The Buffalo News to seek his expertise for the Nov. 22 story that pegged Erie County’s voter turnout at 24 percent for last month’s county executive election. The paltry numbers proved disturbing on many fronts, especially since turnout continues plummeting to abysmal levels year after year.

It all continued to gnaw at Zeplowitz even after the story ran. So he and his team returned to their trusty telephones Dec. 8 to 12 to find out why. Working on his own and not for any client or interest, Zeplowitz surveyed two sets of people: 600 registered voters who chose not to cast any ballot in the November election, and 400 people 18 and older who were not even registered.

The results are not pretty. They confirm what he suspected all along. Voters simply are not interested.

“There’s an attitude that people just don’t care about local elections,” Zeplowitz said. “I have a feeling that two years from now, with no real attraction on the [countywide] ballot, turnout will be less than 20 percent.”

Interest always ticks upward for presidential contests such as what looms ahead for 2016. But Zeplowitz found that November’s perceived yawner between incumbent Democrat Mark Poloncarz and Republican challenger Ray Walter scared away a relatively small percentage of voters.

“When you combine the 17 percent who were just too busy, the 8 percent who just forgot because it isn’t important, and the 8 percent who were ‘working,’ as well as the 4 percent who just don’t vote in local elections,” Zeplowitz said of registered votes, “we see 37 percent who really could have found the time to vote if they cared enough.”

Among those who failed to even register, 20 percent said they were too busy and didn’t care about local elections. Eight percent said politicians are dishonest, 7 percent feel their vote doesn’t count, and another 7 percent said no candidate was worth supporting. Almost 25 percent cited the novel explanation of not really knowing why.

With so much money and media attention focused on elections and the political process, Zeplowitz is amazed by what his pollsters found. How is it, he asks, that an attitude of “who cares?” surpasses even “disgust with the system” as reasons for staying home on Election Day?

“This says to me that the way we are educating people about elections is not working,” he said. “We’re spending a lot of money, because that’s the way we’re supposed to get the message out. But people just don’t care enough. If even this begins to fall off, who will be left in just a few years?”

Zeplowitz thinks politicians – out of self-preservation – ought to begin their own education programs. Maybe Poloncarz and Walter could have cut a joint television spot, he suggests, emphasizing the need to vote. Maybe local media should devote equal time and space for candidates to present positions and backgrounds. Or maybe party officials, the Board of Elections, business, labor and community groups should convene a “summit” to brainstorm some new approach.

The new survey demonstrates voting simply is not a priority for many Erie County residents. A startling 211,000 Erie County adults have not even registered, let alone voted. Compared to the 24 percent turnout in November, about 90 percent cast ballots for the first county executive election in 1960. It’s been dropping ever since.

Somebody in the community, Zeplowitz suggests, needs to recognize the problem.

“Unless there is some conscious effort to turn it around, it will just continue to shrink,” he said. “The future looks pretty grim.”