No Victories In Low Election Turnouts

Editor's Corner

A lone voter casts a ballot during a recent election where there was low turnout reported by the county Board of Elections. P-J file photo

One month before announcing he will not be seeking re-election, state Assemblyman Joseph Giglio had a bone to pick with a change in New York state policy. Around Christmastime, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed a law that would force local elections to take place on even-numbered years.

“That means candidates for local town and county races will have to compete for attention alongside elections for president, governor, statewide races and Congress,” wrote Giglio, who represents Gowanda as well as portions of Cattaraugus and Allegany counties.

“She did this even though town and county officials, Republican and Democrat Board of Election Commissioners and members of the New York Association of Counties asked her not to. They warned that moving local elections to even years won’t save money, will only marginally increase voter participation and will make it difficult for town and county candidates to get their message out amid the dominance and noise of state and national campaigns, like the race for president.”

Four years ago, in the middle of the COVID pandemic, Chautauqua County voters did come out in droves with more nearly 61,000 residents casting a ballot during the last presidential election between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. At the time, turnout was said to be around 75%.

In 2023, area elections that were important to the major municipalities in this region had a lot less gusto. Despite new mayors being elected in Jamestown, Dunkirk and Fredonia, the number of voters was far from captivating.

Shortly after the vote, county Board of Elections Commissioner Brian Abram was disappointed with the turnout he estimated to be around 28%. That gap comparing 2020 to 2023 is far from “marginal” as Giglio noted.

“We can’t get our mind around it. We’re offering nine days of early voting at four different locations,” Abram said. “We’re conveniencing voting and the voting process and yet the numbers seem to be dwindling. It’s a bad trend.”

So where’s the competition Giglio mentions when he complains about local races going up against federal and state contests? Few are turning out to vote during the local elections in the odd years no matter how important the issues are.

Many Chautauqua County residents — like so many others across the nation — are often more tuned in to the national political scene than the local one. They can tell you immediately who serves as U.S. president or as one of their U.S. senators. They are probably not as quick to note who represents them on their municipal council or on the County Legislature.

Despite that anonymity, a 2022 study by the Pew Research Center found about 66% of Americans say they have a favorable view of their local government. That compares to 54% who have a positive view of their state government and just 32% who are complimentary of the federal government.

Those numbers are not as eye-opening as one may think. Individuals we elect on a local level, many of whom are our neighbors and longtime community members, are less likely to be in the path of voter angst. It’s far easier to place blame on those in a state or national capital for the lack of action or progress here at home.

In reality, however, it’s not Albany or Washington’s fault that Fredonia’s water plant has deteriorated through the years or that Jamestown is near the state’s constitutional limit on property taxes. All this can be traced back to decisions made by those elected locally that span decades.

We are usually more forgiving and forgetting of those actions.

By the way, last November there were 251 candidates seeking office to 207 positions across Chautauqua County. In plain English, that means far too many are practically being granted a local office without facing competition.

Those unchallenged, it must be noted, are not going to be impacted by presidential, other federal or state contests. In fact, those running unopposed will definitely tally more votes. Additionally, if there is that rare local race, then maybe it will generate more enthusiasm and votes than what we saw three months ago.

Isn’t a greater number of voters what’s best for a democracy? Wouldn’t a strong turnout of 75% like four years ago be better than the bleak showing of 28% in 2023?

Those squawking about the change apparently think there is something to lose when more people are participating at the polls. That should not be seen as a problem. Instead, it would be better viewed as increased community involvement.

John D’Agostino is editor of The Post-Journal, OBSERVER and Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 716-487-1111.


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