Infographic by Sarah Hall
It’s no secret that presidential and mid-term elections draw scores of people to the polls, while small, municipal elections often inspire little more than a yawn in residents. Indeed, an estimated 37 percent of registered voters in Onondaga County cast their ballots earlier this month — half of the 2016 election’s 74 percent turnout.
While this year’s 37 percent may seem small, it’s a 10-percent leap forward from the 27 percent countywide turnout in 2015, the last “off-year” election. When it comes to voter turnout for town races, the increases from the past two off-year elections are much more dramatic.
We have sampled voter turnout from 2017, 2015 and 2013 in five Onondaga County towns that had contested races this year. For a visual representation of this data, see the infographic above.
Dr. Grant Reeher, director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, offered some insight on the jumps in voter turnout this year.
“It’s not one silver bullet,” Reeher said. He noted that there are four main factors that drew Central New Yorkers to the polls: the Syracuse mayoral race, increased competition for town offices, the New York State Constitutional Convention proposition and the circumstances unique to each town and its candidates.
While the majority of Eagle Newspapers’ readers reside in the suburbs, not in the city of Syracuse, the contentious mayoral race may have heightened regional attention during election season. CNY suburbanites may not live or vote in the city, but they work, shop and dine there.
“When you raise people’s political attention level, they’re more likely to go vote,” Reeher said. “It wasn’t an election that was a foregone conclusion like Stephanie Miner’s reelection in 2013.”
The Onondaga County Board of Elections reports that about 26 percent of voters showed up at the polls in 2013.
“In Syracuse the votes went up substantially between this election and the reelection of Stephanie Miner in 2013,” Reeher said. “She didn’t have a Republican challenger at all and the only other opponent she had was a Green Party [candidate].”
Mayor-Elect Ben Walsh, an independent candidate, beat Democratic candidate Juanita Perez Williams by a margin of about 54 percent to 38 percent. Walsh made history as the first Syracuse mayor in 100 years to claim victory without the support of a major party.
The Syracuse mayoral seat was not the only contested race in the area. While many town offices in Onondaga County are held by long-serving Republican incumbents, Democratic challengers stoked the fire underneath those seats this year. Even those who were not successful in their campaigns made an impression.
“Having races that are competitive and contested [means] the turnout goes up substantially,” Reeher said.
Several of this year’s town races fell within the absentee and affidavit ballot margin, including town board races in Cicero, Clay, Geddes, Lysander and Manlius. Absentee and affidavit ballots were counted Nov. 16, and results will be certified in December.
“It’s sobering on one hand, but that’s what democracy’s all about,” said Lysander Town Councilor Bob Geraci, a Republican.
The four candidates in the Lysander Town Board race fell within about 7 percent of each other. Geraci retained his place on the board with 28.47 percent of the vote, per election night numbers. His fellow Republican incumbent Roman Diamond hung onto his seat with 25.93 percent, but Democratic challenger Kevin Rode followed closely with 24.56 percent. Newcomer Gail Tosh, also a Democrat, earned about 21 percent of the ballots cast.
Reeher said more Democrats are running for office outside of Central New York as well.
“I think there’s some evidence around the country that that’s been the case. There’s a lot more Democrats vying for nominations,” he said.
Independence Party candidate Kevin Meaker made history as the first non-Republican to be elected to the Clay Town Board in more than 20 years. The last Democrat on the board was Don McLaughlin, a Democrat who served from 1976 to 1995.
In the town of Manlius, Democrat Sara Bollinger unseated Town Councilor Dave Marnell by a mere 283 votes, according to the election night tally. Manlius Supervisor Ed Theobald clung to his seat by 352 votes on election night. Marnell and Theobald are both Republican incumbents.
Another draw for Democrats was the proposition for a state Constitutional Convention. While the measure was roundly defeated — 83.25 percent of New Yorkers voted no — among “Con-Con’s” supporters were the League of Women Voters of New York State and Forward March New York (the state offshoot of the Women’s March on Washington).
“Con-Con may have driven some voters,” said Victoria Shires, chair of the Lysander Democratic Committee. “That’s keeping you active in a year where you typically see fewer voters.”
Clay Town Councilor Naomi Bray, a Republican incumbent, lost her bid for reelection last month. She has served on the town board since 1994. While an increase in voter turnout is a good thing, Bray said, factors such as the Constitutional Convention and national political unrest distracted from local issues.
“Some of the elements in establishing the referendum were very potentially harmful to a lot of people and they feel that it [would be] better not to leave those decisions to another group of people. We have the state legislature to make a lot of those decisions,” Bray said. “There was a lot of unease about the outcome of the Constitutional Convention.”
Bray added that the political climate at the national level may have encouraged more people to vote this year.
“There were situations that brought people to the polls, and that’s good,” she said. “I think the Constitutional Convention brought a lot of people out, and I’m sure the national situation — which is regrettable — had an impact. The good qualities of the town got submerged in that.”
Shires said the outcome of the 2016 presidential election galvanized many Democrats’ political activity.
“The election of 2016 was a real eye-opener for a lot of Democrats who just kind of went along with the flow,” she said. “People felt like they needed a voice.”
Reeher said while some voters took a greater interest in this year’s election because of the Constitutional Convention, it is by no means the only factor. And neither is the national political climate.
“We’re a year in on the Trump presidency. It’s generated a lot of strong feelings, both negative and positive,” Reeher said.
The link between local Democrats and Republicans and their federal-level counterparts is nominal at best, Reeher said. While they share a party affiliation with senators, congressional representatives or presidents, local leaders are in the business of keeping daily life running smoothly: plowing roads, maintaining parks and providing sewer and water services for their constituents. The higher-ups have federal and global issues on their plates.
“Democrats already have enough trouble trying to attach Donald Trump to John Katko, and that’s somebody in Congress. There are some people who do have an attachment, but they’ve explicitly [highlighted that],” Reeher said, noting that Onondaga County GOP Chair Tom Dadey has touted his support of Trump.
Reeher said local officials’ connections to Trump could affect mid-term elections. In October 2016, Katko called for Trump to drop out of the presidential race; since then, Katko has voted in line with Trump’s positions 88.7 percent of the time, according to political analysis site FiveThirtyEight.
“The member of Congress that’s going to have that issue is Claudia Tenney because she supported Donald Trump, but that’s not until next year,” Reeher said.
Despite the heavy focus on national politics in the past year, Reeher said he is skeptical that the Democratic wave of dissent against Republican President Donald Trump has had much of an effect on town councilor races and the like.
“There will be some voters that might have seen this through a national lens. Certainly, when you have a very galvanizing figure at the national level it can trickle down,” he said. “[But] getting all the way down to local town elections? I would take that with a grain of salt.”
Reeher said it is important to consider the circumstances of each individual town race.
“When you’re looking at local elections and you’re trying to figure out why the turnout may have varied between different similar years,” he said, “you have to recognize that each local election has its own story, its own context, its own dynamic.”
Ashley M. Casey is a reporter for The Baldwinsville Messenger and The Eagle Star-Review. She graduated from Le Moyne College in 2012 and previously worked for the Scotsman Press.