One certainty about Election Day is that there will be a lot of new voters going to polling places this year.
With a contentious presidential election in the offing, there has been a surge in new voter registrations this year across the state, taking the total number of voters registered past 13.5 million. Saratoga County alone added more than 10,000 new voters, the most of any county in the Capital Region.
New voter registration numbers released by the state Board of Elections on Monday show that as of Nov. 1, there were 13,555,547 registered voters in New York state, an increase of 583,704 voters since the last registration update in February.
Overall, New York state now has more than 6.8 million Democratic enrolled voters, up nearly 250,000 from earlier this year. There are 2.96 million registered Republicans, with that party having garnered about 112,000 new voters. Independent voters not enrolled in any party grew by 208,812.
Jennifer Wilson, deputy director of the League of Women Voters of New York State, said the voter-advocacy organization was pleasantly surprised by the increase in registrations, since the COVID-19 pandemic curtailed many in-person voter registration drives this year.
Wilson expects the increase in registrations means more people will vote, though historically as many as half of registered voters don’t make it to the polls. “I definitely think if people register this year, they will vote this year,” she said. “The drop-off will be in the next year, when there are local elections.”
Nothing in the new numbers is going to shake the Democratic party’s long-time hold on New York state politics. But the figures show that many new voters — both statewide and in local counties — are choosing not to affiliate with a political party. Those “independent” voters then occupy the middle to which the major party candidates try to appeal.
Presidential election years traditionally lead to the biggest increases in voter registration. The surge in new registrations was even bigger in the 2016 election year. That year resulted in 766,408 new voter registrations statewide, according to the state Board of Elections, but in 2012, the gain was only 242,350.
“There is always an uptick before a presidential election, because maybe people are more excited to vote and there’s a lot more voter mobilization,” said Robert Turner, a professor of political science at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs.
“The large number of people this year being willing to stand in line for two or three hours to vote shows a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of commitment and maybe anger to want to vote,” he said.
The percentage of voters choosing not to enroll in a political party has been going up since about 2009, Turner said. But he added that studies find that even though voters don’t affiliate with a party, they want straight-party line ballots like party members.
“There’s very high levels of negative partisanship,” he said. “I think it has a negative impact, in turning off moderates from identifying with a party.”
The Democratic enrollment advantage is a prime factor behind the party’s hold on statewide elected offices and control of both houses of the state Legislature — and it is seen upstate in phenomena like Congressman Antonio Delgado’s 2018 win in a rural congressional district that Republicans had long held. (The 19th Congressional District now has 20,000 more Democrats than Republicans.)
With New York City excluded, Democrats have gained 117,749 new voters, Republicans have gained 83,262, and unenrolled have gained 132,453. There are 3,063,633 Democrats outside the city, 2,396,719 Republicans, and 1,955,725 unenrolled voters.
Among third parties, the Conservative party saw a small increase to 162,097, while the Independence and Working Families parties saw small decreases in their enrollments, to 481,539 and 45,610, respectively. The Green party gained 200, to 28,501. The Libertarian party, while statistically tiny, saw a big percentage increase. The party’s statewide enrollment increased from 14,880 in February to 21,555 today.
In the Capital Region, Saratoga County saw its total voter registrations increase from 168,773 in February to 179,593, and saw more new Democratic than Republican enrollments. The most common choice, though, was to avoid a political party entirely.
At the county level, increases could be due to new people registering to vote, but could also be due to residents who have moved to the county from elsewhere, and may have been registered to vote where they previously lived.
The Republican party has long been dominant in the Spa county, but the number of non-party enrolled voters rose by 4,277, to 46,311. The Democratic party gained 3,652 voters, though its overall enrollment remained well behind the GOP, at 52,836. The Republicans’ enrollment increased by 2,435, to 66,135.
Local election officials believe some of the Democrats’ gains are due to people relocating to the county from the New York City area — a phenomena possibly tied to COVID-19 safety concerns. “The county is turning purple,” said Saratoga County Democratic Chairman Todd Kerner in an interview last month.
Schenectady County saw total enrollment rise from 104,200 to 108,352. The Democrats have dominated Schenectady County elections in recent years, and they gained 1,514 voters, to 43,252. The GOP gained 632, to 25,472, But unenrolled gained beat them both, rising by 1,981, to 28,834.
Montgomery County saw registrations increase by nearly 1,200, to 30,583, with the Republicans increasing by 544, and unenrolled increasing by 434. Democrats added just 134 voters. Overall, the GOP has 10,685 voters, and Democrats 9,672.
New York remains among the states with the most strict voter registration requirements. People had to have registered by Oct. 9 in order to vote in Tuesday’s election.
Wilson said new laws intended to make it easier to register to vote haven’t yet taken effect. A bill allowing online registration won’t take effect until 2021; a bill to make voter registration automatic through the Department of Motor Vehicles and other state agencies still awaits Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature. If signed, it wouldn’t take effect until 2023.