Capital Region voter turnout surged over 10 percent in presidential election

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Voter turnout surged across the Capital Region for this year’s presidential election, rising over 10 percent when compared to the turnout in 2016.

Total votes in the presidential election increased over 15 percent in Saratoga County – rising from 115,118 votes in 2016 to over 132,000 votes this year – and grew by more than 10 percent in Schenectady, Schoharie, Fulton, Montgomery and Rensselaer counties.

Over 500,000 voters cast ballots across the seven Capital Region counties in this year’s presidential race, an 11.6 percent increase over the region’s total vote in the 2016 presidential election.

“It is a hugely significant increase in a presidential election,” said Zoe Oxley, a Union College political scientist specializing in American politics. “Something on the magnitude of 10 percent is unprecedented in recent history.”

Oxley highlighted the high-interest level in this year’s election and saturated media coverage as driving turnout, but said she thinks legal changes that eased hurdles to voting – like an expansion of access to absentee voting – was the biggest contributor to the increased turnout.

“Legally, it was just easier to vote,” Oxley said of changes in New York and across the state. “On top of that, there was lots of information about how they could vote… just basic information was readily available this year.”

In New York, voters were allowed to request an absentee ballot due to concerns surrounding the pandemic, but some lawmakers and advocates have signaled a desire to make permanent the less restrictive mail-in voting requirements. This year’s election was the first time early voting was allowed in a presidential race in the state, drawing lines to voting sites for much of the week before Election Day.

Both major-party candidates, President-elect Joe Biden and President Donald Trump, received more votes than in 2016 in all seven counties, while a significantly smaller share of voters cast ballots for third-party or write-in candidates compared to four years ago. In some counties, the third-party vote share in 2020 was well under half of what it was in 2016.

In Saratoga County, for example, over 8 percent of the county’s 2016 voters supported a third-party or write-in candidate for president; in 2020, just 2.2 percent of voters supported a candidate other than Biden or Trump. In Schenectady County, the third-party and write-in share of votes fell from 7.7 percent in 2016 to 2.9 percent in 2020.

Trump won more votes in all of the seven counties compared to 2016, but Biden outperformed Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic nominee, enough to flip both Saratoga and Rensselaer counties from Republican to Democrat in this year’s presidential race. In 2016, Clinton won 48.5 percent of the total vote across the seven counties; in 2020, Biden won 54 percent of the total vote in the region. In 2016, 7.5 percent of all votes cast in the region were for a third-party or write-in candidate; in 2020, the share of third-party and write-in votes dropped to 2.7 percent.

Oxley said this year’s election played out as more of a referendum on Trump, an incumbent with a four-year record in office, with many voters opposing Trump more than supporting Biden. Meanwhile, 2016 was more a choice between two non-incumbents – both highly unpopular – and resulted in higher-than-usual third-party voting.

“People who really wanted Trump out of office were voting for the only alternative to beat Trump and that was Joe Biden,” Oxley said. “2016 was much more of a comparative contest – Do I want to vote for Hillary or Donald? – and on top of that both had pretty high negatives.”

In the days since the election, President Trump has pressed unsupported claims of voter fraud, asserting he was the rightful winner. While many Republicans helped fuel Trump’s claims – local Republican congressional candidate Liz Joy on social media on Nov. 24 said, “You can’t convince me fraud wasn’t involved” – they have been largely rejected by courts and elections officials across the country. Oxley said it was dangerous the way the election results were being politicized, but noted the election system is successfully handling the challenges.

“It does demonstrate the strength of the electoral mechanisms in place,” she said. “I think the election was very well run this year given tremendous difficulties with the pandemic, and I think in the weeks since the election it has become even more clear the election was well run.”

The national discourse also shined a light on New York’s vote-count process: as people waited for close battleground states to count mail-in ballots in the days following Nov. 3, with most media outlets waiting until Nov. 7 to declare Biden the winner, New York counties didn’t start counting mail ballots until a week after Election Day.

“This year really showed how New York is an outlier by waiting a full week to even start the counting process,” Oxley said, suggesting lawmakers explore allowing elections officials to begin the counting process earlier.

As of Tuesday, 35 county boards of election had submitted final certified results to the state, out of 62 counties total, according to state Board of Elections spokesperson John Conklin. Around another 15 county boards had provided the state with interim certified results while the rest promised to provide full or interim results by Wednesday afternoon. The state Board of Elections is scheduled to meet virtually Thursday to certify results available from the counties.

Montgomery County finalized and certified its results Tuesday, Elections Commissioner Terry Bieniek said. Fulton county finalized its certification on Monday.

“The absentee counting started late because of the court case,” he said, referring to litigation in the 46th Senate District race.

The county technically missed a statutory deadline that gives county boards of elections 25 days from Election Day to certify results for the state Board of Elections. Missing the deadline has no real consequence and is not uncommon among counties where judges have gotten involved in the vote count, Conklin said Tuesday, as was the case in Montgomery County.

“There is no consequence for missing it; a number of counties are going to miss it, have missed it,” Conklin said of the Nov. 28 deadline. “Certainly if there is… a judge involved in supervising a specific count, you as a county board are going to do whatever the judge tells you to do irrespective of any statutory deadline.”

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