Turnout in Buffalo defeated Brinkworth; what can be done about turnout?

Erie County just completed a mostly uneventful election. Many candidates were elected without opposition or just a minor line challenger. There are a few elections hanging by a thread, like the two vote margin in the Grand Island Supervisor race. And then there was the race for the new seat on the Family Court bench.

Unlike some other judicial races this year, there wasn’t a question about candidate credentials or qualifications. All of the candidates could do a good job in the Court.

There was the craziness of what was spent. Michele Brown, who lost both the Democratic and Republican primaries in September, spent nearly $280,000 of her and her husband’s money, plus a few thousand that was donated to the campaign. Her spending drew out not quite as large amounts of spending by the two main contenders, Democrat Kelly Brinkworth and Republican Brenda Freedman. After they defeated Brown in their respective party primaries they then needed to raise and spend tens of thousands of dollars more for the general election. A total of $711,000 was spent by all candidates combined through October 19th. The final number will likely exceed $800,000.

A friend points out to me what seems to be the new reality for a local judicial race: after a candidate has raised a few thousands of dollars from friends and supporters, mostly from the legal community, the candidate must mostly fend for themselves. If you have a bi-partisan pass like Frank Sedita and Emilio Colaiavoco had for Supreme Court, you are all set. If you are in a potentially competitive race but the competition does not materialize, like County Court Judge Sheila DiTullio and candidate James Bargnesi this year, you are also all set. But when you enter a competitive race for a judicial seat, as in the case of Erie County Family Court, you better have deep pockets or relatives who have deep pockets.

The final vote totals in the Family Court race have Freedman defeating Brinkworth by a little more than 6,000 votes. Turnout countywide was just under 25 percent. Turnout in the City of Buffalo was 15 percent.

Democrats in Erie County in the most recent enrollment statistics have an oft-cited 131,000 edge over Republicans. What is usually not mentioned, however, is that are 98,000 voters who are not affiliated with a party. Combined enrollment of the six minor parties in the county amounts to 46,000. Even if voter turnout was generally the same in the entire county, the non-affiliated and minor party enrollees can certainly help a Republican candidate balance things out.

Turnout in Buffalo’s Delaware District, where there was a competitive race for councilman, was 25 percent. The South District turned out 19 percent; Ellicott 16 percent. The other districts were in the low double digits.

Turnout in the towns ranged from 14 percent in Collins to 37 percent in Eden. Twelve towns exceeded 30 percent turnout, but even in towns with very competitive local races such as Amherst, Hamburg and West Seneca, turnouts were poor.

Having set the stage with these facts, now consider the following:

  • While overall turnout in the county this year was about 25 percent, the very low 15 percent turnout in Buffalo means that in the rest of the county, outside of Buffalo, turnout was 28 percent. That is still a terribly low number, but it is nearly twice the rate of eligible voter voting as in Buffalo.
  • Kelly Brinkworth defeated Brenda Freedman in the City of Buffalo by 8,000 votes. Brinkworth’s margin in the city was 68-32 percent.
  • Assume for the moment that turnout in Buffalo equaled that in the rest of the county (28 percent). That would have produced potentially 17,000 extra voters in the Family Court race.
  • Assume that Brinkworth’s and Freedman’s splits of the extra 17,000 votes based on their showing with the 22,000 who did vote. That would have added a net of 7,000 votes to Brinkworth’s margin. Overall in the county Brinkworth, in that scenario, would have won by 1,000 votes.

Options for dealing with low turnout

For the Republican Party, of course, this is not such a bad situation. Low turnouts, particularly in Buffalo, level the playing field and improve their chances of winning. And as Nick Langworthy points out, it is not easy to convince a Republican in the city to run where the best party enrollment numbers, which are in the Delaware District, hover around 15 percent of total enrollment. Democrats also have a problem in some Republican-dominated towns recruiting candidates who might try to be competitive and draw out Democratic voters, but that problem affects the big picture a whole lot less.

So what to do? A couple solutions could be considered.

The most obvious is to make a larger and better effort to draw out voters in the city even if there are no city campaigns of any consequences. It would mean targeting the best opportunities for increased turnout, particularly in Delaware, Ellicott and South. It would mean trying to motivate city voters to come out for things other than city races. Ray Walter’s main campaign issue, changing the sales tax formula, would devastate Buffalo. Did anyone try to tell voters about that?

Raising the turnout in Buffalo would take a lot of organizing and hard work. A lot would be expected of Democratic Zone leaders in the city who would need to do a great deal old-fashioned door-to-door stuff. Maybe a better effort to register voters. The type of stuff that was the party’s MO back in the days of Joe Crangle’s chairmanship. Republican leaders in the city should also be encouraged to do the same thing. A good healthy dose of small d democracy would benefit the community.

Buffalo North District Councilmember Joe Golombek has another suggestion: abolish party primaries in the City and let candidates just file petitions for an office. On the traditional primary day, let all the candidates run and if one gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the election is over. If no one gets 50 percent, use the November election to choose between the top two vote getters in September.

This type of election is used in other parts of the country, most particularly in California and Louisiana. It is sometimes referred to as a “qualifying primary” or “jungle primary.” In California it often results in two Democrats competing against each other in November.

I think Golombek’s idea makes a lot of sense. It would likely improve turnout. But it would require a change in the state election law. There are too many moving parts in this where someone with their own interests could and would gum up the idea. Push the idea, Joe.

But in the meantime it is back to improving city turnout. A real challenge but with the right effort, doable.