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'Con-con' boosts 2017 turnout, with varied effects, observers say

It was supposed to be a “quiet” election, marked by low turnout and lots of yawns over offices like county clerk and comptroller.

But voters thought differently.

A host of experts say passion over a proposal for a state constitutional convention  — along with other dynamics — sparked a relatively strong turnout Tuesday, far more than anyone anticipated for an off-year election in a four-year cycle that traditionally spawns paltry interest.

Indeed, Board of Elections tallies show 40,000 more voters showed up Tuesday than for the last election featuring the clerk, comptroller and sheriff in 2013. And 75,000 more voted this year than in 2015 for the county executive contest, which usually draws higher interest.

“‘Con-con’ stimulated a lot of union members and their retirees,” said Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy. “A lot of people came out who had not voted before in an off-year election.”

No uniform effect seems to stem from the heightened turnout, and other efforts such as concentrated get-out-the-vote efforts for Democratic sheriff candidate Bernard A. Tolbert also spiked voting.

But these noteworthy results are evident:

• Amherst voters trekked to their polling places in far greater numbers than in 2013, with Langworthy theorizing that those spurred by unions or constitutional convention critics within the University at Buffalo community voted down-the-line Democratic. Result: a new Democratic supervisor and a 5 to 0 Democratic Town Board.

Kulpa elected Amherst town supervisor as Democrats win full control of board

“It looks like several thousand additional voters just bullet voted,” Langworthy said. “They were motivated by con-con, then said ‘Hey, I’m a Democrat and I’ll vote Democrat.’”

• The constitutional convention proposal suffered massive defeats in Democratic areas like Cheektowaga and Lancaster, where Republican Ted B. Morton’s defeat turned the County Legislature over to Democratic control (though Republicans noted some success in Lancaster local races).

• Compared to 34 percent in all of Erie County, turnout was a less robust 27 percent in the City of Buffalo, where no real race for mayor and no contests for Common Council or County Legislature lured its overwhelming plurality of Democratic voters to the polls. But 14,793 more voters still turned out than in the crucial Democratic primary in September, perhaps propelling the Democratic candidates for clerk and sheriff to close, if  unsuccessful, finishes.

Meanwhile, the constitutional convention proposal lost in Buffalo by a margin of 30,008 to 8,501.

New York voters nix constitutional convention, vote to reform pensions

Unions such as the New York State United Teachers mobilized their forces against the constitution proposal throughout the campaign, increasing turnout among a membership concerned that a significant overhaul of the state’s governing document could affect pensions and other benefits.

NYSUT President Andy Pallotta said unions organized in an “unprecedented coalition.”

“NYSUT members made more than 500,000 calls from phone banks, knocked on tens of thousands of doors, and distributed literature to their friends, families and colleagues,” he said. “Everywhere you turned, you saw a lawn sign, a car magnet or a button urging a ‘No’ vote - a sign that NYSUT, and labor, remains a strong force in New York State fighting to protect workers from wealthy special interests.”

But even though the convention proposal mobilized thousands of voters who might normally not have turned out on Tuesday, it was not enough to overcome the lower turnout in the city ‑ with its lack of contests – compared to the suburbs, where a host of races beckoned voters to the polls.

County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz attributed some of the Democratic success to national trends favoring the party, but also noted the city-suburban disparity. Had there been just a tad more turnout in the city, he said, voters would be talking about “Sheriff Tolbert” now.

Tolbert congratulates Howard on 'apparent win' but does not concede

Though Mayor Byron W. Brown endorsed Tolbert late in the campaign, party insiders say the mayor’s powerful campaign team failed to swing into action on the level of its 2016 presidential primary effort for Hillary Clinton.

One campaign insider acknowledged a major mayoral effort could have benefited Tolbert and Democratic clerk candidate Steven J. Cichon, both of whom lost close races. While nobody is pursuing the complaints, the insider said, some level of “hard feelings” have resulted.

“Those feelings are not easily forgotten,” the insider said, acknowledging that Tolbert mounted his own challenge to Brown in the 2013 Democratic primary for mayor and that a major effort for him in return should not have been realistically expected.

Other factors negated the overall lower city turnout, such as the get-out-the-vote campaigns of several left leaning groups opposed to Republican incumbent Sheriff Timothy B. Howard. Sarah Buckley, campaign coordinator for a group called Showing Up for Racial Justice Action Buffalo Fire Howard, said it organized hundreds of volunteers to stimulate voters concerned over “Sheriff Howard’s terrible racism and terrible record of oversight in the jails.”

“That really saw results on Tuesday, unfortunately not as much as needed,” she said. “But certainly there was a better margin and turnout than in the last cycle.”

The group knocked on doors and staffed phone banks to mobilize Tolbert supporters, while others waved signs on street corners and dropped literature. The results were especially noticeable in Council districts such as Delaware, a primarily white enclave where African-American Tolbert gained his greatest support. The Democrat prevailed there 5,204 to 1,176 on the Democratic vs. Republican lines, and 1,557 to 746 in North.

“We spent a lot of time before in the suburbs and in the city this weekend,” Buckley said.

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