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School Board turnout nearly matches 2013 as control shifts again

Tuesday’s Buffalo School Board elections had been expected to draw fewer voters than either two years ago or three years ago, when new voices – aided by big money – energized new voters interested in seeing the district move in a different direction.

But as it turned out, nearly as many people went to the polls as three years ago. Unofficial Erie County Board of Elections counts showed at least 13,119 voters cast ballots Tuesday, with one election district still to be counted. Though still paltry when measured against other elections, that compared with 13,159 votes cast in the 2013 School Board races and 7,175 in 2010, the last two years in which district seats were contested.

Early Tuesday – with the direction of the district at stake again – election inspectors and political observers had speculated that the bloom might be off the rose, with fewer voters paying attention, especially after two weeks of political challenges that knocked three candidates off the ballot and left others scrambling to regain traction after the dust settled.

Erie County Board of Elections Commissioner Leonard R. Lenihan predicted early Tuesday that voter turnout would be considerably lower than in the 2013 district races, when it reached 9 percent, or the 2014 at-large election, when turnout reached 13 percent, the highest in many years.

A visit to the busiest polling places in the most contested districts Tuesday suggested that union-backed candidates seem to have benefitted more from money, manpower and determination than board majority bloc incumbents and allied candidates, who showed signs of being more distracted and disorganized than their challengers. That turned out to be reflected in the outcome, as two of the three majority-bloc incumbents lost.

At the Unitarian Universalist Church on Elmwood Avenue, for instance – one of the busiest polling places in the city during School Board races – board majority incumbent Jason M. McCarthy didn’t have any signs out, while his North District challenger, Hope R. Jay, faithfully stood outside during the lunch hour rush alongside a fellow campaigner, with signs dotting the sidewalk.

A similar pattern was seen at other major polling places across the city.

Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore said his people manned phone banks Monday night and that robocalls went out to voters Tuesday, encouraging them to turn out. Rumore said some of the robocalls draw negative associations between board majority bloc member Carl P. Paladino and those he endorsed in this year’s race.

The union also planned to have people go door-to-door after school to get voters to the polls in support of their endorsed candidates, he said.

“We expect to reach a couple thousand in this district,” Rumore said, after casting his own ballot in the North District, which typically sees some of the highest turnout during board elections.

The effort paid off as union backed candidates took control of the nine-member board.

Early in the day, however, it didn’t appear as if this year’s race was generating the same interest as three years ago.

At the former home of All Saints School in Riverside, eight West District election inspectors sat around with very little to do, despite expectations that the lunch hour might bring more traffic.

In a district where incumbent Board President James M. Sampson was waging an ultimately unsuccessful write-in campaign against challenger Jennifer L. Mecozzi, there were no signs indicating Sampson was running a race there until a young woman quickly left her car in an otherwise quiet parking lot to greet a prospective voter and instruct her how to fill out a write-in ballot. Representatives for Mecozzi’s campaign also were present.

While waiting for voters, election inspectors complained about how voters in the district were treated in a particularly contentious election, with many who signed petitions for either candidate being interrogated by opponents to see if their petitions were valid. Having strangers call them or show up their doorstep was intimidating and may have contributed to what was initially a low turnout, inspectors said.

Inspector William Geary said people who lived in his neighborhood felt “depressed and suppressed.”

“They were really afraid,” he said.

At New Covenant Church of Christ on Clinton Street, in the Central District where Paulette Woods and Bryon J. McIntyre were vying for the seat being vacated by retiring incumbent Mary Ruth Kapsiak, signs for Woods were everywhere. There were no obvious signs for McIntyre, a parent advocate who declined union support. Woods won.