With the presidential vote and congressional and state elections barely three weeks away, everyone would like to know how the Capital Region will vote. Is this Trump country or Biden country?
You’ll have to stay tuned. Predicting how our region is going to vote is harder than it used to be.
Party enrollment trends are making the region bluer — and that’s true even as a wave of new people has registered to vote this year. Friday was the deadline to register, so the total number of new registrations isn’t yet available, but county boards of election have been busy — and they are always busiest during a presidential election year.
“We have people coming in over the counter, but a lot [of registrations] also come in by mail. We’re working weekends and coming in early. But this happens every presidential year,” said Roger Schiera, Saratoga County’s Republican elections commissioner.
While communities such as Albany may have deep historic dominance by one political party, shifts in party enrollment over the past couple of decades have made it harder to pigeonhole the political leanings of Capital Region counties. Saratoga County is the best local example.
In one of the most dramatic shifts, the Democratic party has gained significant ground over the past 20 years in the historically Republican county. Over the same years, Schenectady County has also shifted toward the Democrats. Democrats have in fact been increasing their voter enrollment statewide, with the party’s voter enrollment having risen by 1.6 million statewide in the past 20 years, to 6.5 million, according to state Board of Elections records. The Republican party in that interval has lost about 250,000 voters.
Broadly speaking, it remains the case that rural areas such as Fulton County and western Montgomery County are more conservative and Republican than the region’s cities. It is also true that more voters than in the past are registering under smaller parties like the Independence Party, or registering with no party affiliation at all.
Albany County remains the overwhelmingly Democratic place it has been since legends like Dan O’Connell and Mayor Erastus Corning II trod the linoleum. Montgomery County, meanwhile, remains nearly evenly divided between Democratic and Republican enrollments, the same as it was two decades ago.
Saratoga County, which has run counter to upstate trend by growing its population for the past 70 years, has seen the largest increase in people who identify as Democrats. As of last February, the most recent official statistics available from the state Board of Elections, the county had 49,184 registered Democrats, up from just 30,000 voters 20 years ago.
“I’m sure that it’s gone up because we’re getting more migration from New York City and other areas,” Schiera said, while also acknowledging some voters switch parties.
Republican enrollment in the county, meanwhile, has stayed nearly flat over the past 20 years. There were 63,700 Republicans listed in February, which is about 2,000 fewer than in 2000. But that’s still the largest bloc of voters, and the GOP still holds every countywide office just as it has for decades. There’s no threat to its control of the county Board of Supervisors or most town boards.
Democrats have made electoral inroads in some communities, though — particularly in Saratoga Springs, where Democrats have controlled the City Council — if sometimes fractiously — since 2014. The majority of the Ballston Spa Village Board is also now Democrats.
The Trump presidency appears to have been good for enrolling new Democrats in the county. As recently as February 2016, Saratoga County had only 42,000 registered Democrats, but that number has jumped up by 7,000 since President Trump was elected.
“The county is turning purple,” said Saratoga County Democratic Chairman Todd Kerner. “I think especially in the last four years, there’s been a large number of enrollment changes. People see that the Republican party under Trump has become extremely out of touch with most Americans.”
Asked about the continued control of local governments in the county by the Republicans, Kerner said more Democrats turn out in even-numbered election years, when presidents, governors, senators, members of Congress and state legislators are on the ballot.
Kerner said higher turnouts in even-year elections helps Democratic legislators like Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake, who is running for her fourth two-year term this year representing the 113th Assembly District against Republican Dave Catalfamo. The district, if you went by enrollment numbers alone, should lean Republican.
“I think people are voting for the best person, regardless of party affiliation,” Kerner said.
Saratoga County GOP Chairman Carl Zeilman said the party continues to enroll new voters, and he believes the party has a strong message. “This [election] cycle, Republicans are really energized to get out and vote because of bail reform and keeping our communities safe,” he said, referencing the law-and-order message Republicans are pushing at the local, state and national levels.
This year, Schenectady County has 41,378 registered Democrats, giving the party a notable edge over the 24,840 Republicans. In 2000, the comparable numbers were nearly even: 34,785 Democrats and 33,252 Republicans. One result: What was a razor-thin GOP majority on the County Legislature in 2000 is now a nearly solid Democratic/Conservative coalition board, with just one Republican among the 15 legislators.
State board records show a major drop-off in Republican enrollments in Schenectady County between 2008 and 2016, when the number of registered Republicans fell from 29,782 to 24,898. As of last March, the enrollment was 24,800.
Schenectady County Republican Chairman Chris Koetzle said he’s not concerned about voter enrollment so much as the party offering candidates with broad appeal in local elections. “Republicans still do very well when they have a strong candidate,” he said. “I know enrollment ebbs and flows with events in the world.”
He said younger voters are more likely to not enroll in any political party, “but I think we do very well with them.”
“This is a deep, deep blue state,” he said. “[Democrats] have the money, they have the power. They have a [political] machine, no question about that, and we don’t have a machine.”
He also believes part of the reason for upstate Democrat enrollment increases is a result of people from New York City and its suburbs moving upstate, whether for a slower lifestyle, retirement, or to escape the areas that were hard hit by COVID this year. Many people from the city moved upstate after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, which also changed the local political dynamic.
“I know it is happening in Saratoga County, but it is happening in Glenville,” said Koetzle, who is also the Glenville town supervisor. “A lot of Democrats on the local level are more than happy to support a Republican.”