SCHENECTADY -- Voters who live in the city of Schenectady don't turn out to vote in elections at nearly the same rate as those who live in Schenectady County's suburban and rural communities.
That was true in the 2016 presidential election, and it remained true in 2017, according to a new evaluation by the League of Women Voters of Schenectady County. Last year turnout was lower across the county.
In 2017 -- considered an off-year election, although City Council, town board and County Legislature seats were at stake -- there were voting districts, including parts of Hamilton Hill, Central Park, Central State and Mont Pleasant, in which voter turnout was below 20 percent.
"It's pretty shocking, the small percentage of voters who are registered who turn out to vote," said Kay Ackerman, chairwoman of the league's voter services committee.
In the 2016 presidential election, the league evaluated county Board of Elections files and determined turnout in the rest of the county ranged from 77 percent in Duanesburg to 73 percent in Rotterdam. In the city, it was 60 percent.
In 2017, general election turnout in the rest of the county ranged from 47 percent in Princetown to 40 percent in Duanesburg, while in Schenectady it was just 26 percent. The lowest overall turnout was in Hamilton Hill/Vale, where three of its four election districts had turnouts of 14 or 15 percent. But the numbers showed that there were low-turnout districts in nearly every city neighborhood.
"The city pulled down the county averages in both years," said league board member Pauline Kinsella, who heads a committee trying to address the turnout issue. "I think it's fairly apparent when you look at where people don't vote that it's in the higher-poverty, lower-education neighborhoods."
"These are neighborhoods where when you go to try to get people to register to vote, we get a lot of, 'My vote doesn't count,'" said Ackerman.
While the kind of voting analysis the league has done at the local level is unusual, it reflects information about voter turnout that can be found nationally, and it offers another perspective on long-running concerns about adult participation in the democratic process in the United States.
Education levels and income are big factors in who votes and who doesn't, according to U.S. Census Bureau findings. Of those with a college education, 74 percent voted in 2016, while only 35 percent of those without a high school degree voted. Those who earn $50,000 or more per year or also far more likely to vote than those earning less.
The Census Bureau also found that some racial groups voted more than others, though the differences aren't huge: 63 percent of whites voted, 59 percent of blacks, 49 percent of Asians and 48 percent of Latinos.
The Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., estimates that just under 56 percent of the voting-age population voted in the 2016 presidential election. That was a slight improvement from 2012, but less than in 2008. In New York state, statewide turnout in the 2016 presidential election was 52.4 percent -- below the national average, and seventh-lowest in the nation. The countywide turnout percentage that year was 70 percent.
The League of Women Voters, which has for decades organized voter registration drives as one of its primary functions, is now coming up with ideas on how to get those who are registered to actually go to a polling place on Election Day.
Some factors may be beyond their control, league leaders acknowledge: difficulty getting time away from work to vote or transportation issues. But a public awareness campaign is in the planning stages.
A meeting is planned for early October with the Schenectady Inner City Ministry to talk about what faith-based organizations can do to encourage voter turnout, and the league also hopes to meet with neighborhood associations around the city. "We'd be willing to go and speak to anyone," KInsella said.
Another plan calls for making lawn signs and posters -- similar to those candidates ask supporters to put on their lawns -- but which offer a non-partisan message simply reminding people of the election. The league plans to have them ready for the run-up to this year's November election, when federal and state offices, including governor and congressional seats, will be at stake.
The city of Schenectady has about one-third of the county's registered voters and the lowest turnout rates, so the league plans to focus its efforts there.
"We agreed to focus on the city of Schenectady because that's where the turnout is lowest, and that's where the people are," Kinsella said.