It was easier to vote early in Erie County than anywhere else in the state, with 37 polling places to choose from and residents permitted to vote at any of them.
By and large, though, most of the people who voted early in Erie County probably would have voted anyhow this year, even if the state hadn't introduced early voting.
Fewer than 1% of Erie County’s early voters had not voted at all in the past four years, even in the last presidential election, according to a Buffalo News analysis of local voting records.
Just over 26,500 people voted early in Erie County. Only 179 of those were eligible to vote in the past four years but did not go to the polls even once.
Still, the extra effort and expense of operating five times more polling sites in Erie County than required by law does seem to have succeeded in boosting early turnout here. Only Long Island’s Nassau County – which has nearly twice as many voters as Erie County – had more people casting early ballots.
Among the 10 largest counties in the state, Erie County had the highest percentage of eligible voters turn out early, at 4.2%.
Erie County’s elections commissioners said they were pleased with the turnout. They pointed to the proliferation of early voting locations, coupled with the new electronic poll books used to register voters, as key elements of a successful first year of early voting.
“The system we rolled out in bipartisan fashion here was the best in New York,” said Jeremy Zellner, the Democratic elections commissioner.
Early turnout here was double that of the state average, based on the percentage of voters balloting early, according to a Buffalo News analysis of data provided by the state Board of Elections.
“Erie County is to be commended for doing such a good job,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York. “In Erie County, you really have the benefit of countywide polling places. Voters in New York City did not have that.”
Despite having the convenience of being able to vote anywhere in the county, the vast majority of early voters cast ballots in the town or city they live in.
Of those voting early, 93% voted in the same Erie County town or city they live in, the News analysis found.
Early voter turnout varied considerably, from just above 3% of eligible voters in Cheektowaga, Buffalo and the Town of Tonawanda to more than 8% in the rural towns of Elma, Sardinia and Marilla.
In Erie County, the News also found:
Early voters were older than the typical voter. Those casting ballots early had a median age of 65, compared with a median age of 54 for all registered voters in the county.
Voters not registered with any party accounted for 11.3% of early voters, but 18.5% of all registered voters.
Both Democrats and Republicans were slightly more represented in the pool of early voters than among all registered voters. Democrats accounted for 53% of early voters, compared with 48% of registered voters. Republicans accounted for 29% of early voters.
The gender breakdown was the same among early voters as among all registered voters: 54% female and 46% male.
“Statewide turnout, unofficially, is approximately 1.9% over the nine days,” Todd Valentine, co-executive director of the New York State Board of Elections, said in a prepared statement. “With nothing to compare it to, we don’t know yet if that is high or low.”
After Election Day, he said, state officials will consult with local officials regarding changes that could be made to improve early voting and decide what recommendations, if any, to make to the state Legislature.
In Niagara County, early turnout was 1.3%, the 22nd-lowest out of 62 counties in the state. Niagara County operated two early voting sites, the number it was required to have by law. One was in Niagara Falls and the other was in Lockport.
In Erie County, elections officials said the electronic polling books worked very well. It took an average of 43 seconds from the time a person arrived to sign in to the time they were handed a ballot, according to Republican Elections Commissioner Ralph Mohr.
There’s no way to know for sure how much more efficient that was, compared with the traditional routine of locating a voter’s name in the paper registration book, then having him or her sign it. But both Mohr and Zellner estimated it probably cut the time in half.
“So the money was well spent,” Mohr said, referring to the cost of the electronic polling books and on-demand printers.
Both said that based on how smoothly early voting unfolded this year, next year they will likely expand the use of the electronic polling books to Election Day, as well. This year, voters will still sign their names in the paper registration books on Election Day.