Modest turnout for Buffalo’s mayoral election

While turnout was higher in Tuesday's contest than the June primary, it fell short of the last time there was a serious contest for mayor in a general election. And at 40%, it means most city voters stayed home, despite the intensity of the campaign.

The contest between India Walton and Byron Brown looked like it could be close.

It wasn’t. 

Though it’ll be a while before the write-in votes for Brown are validated and absentee ballots are counted, the outcome is clear: Brown won a fifth term resoundingly, according to unofficial returns from the Erie County Board of Elections.

The first hotly contested general election for Buffalo mayor in 16 years — a showdown between ideologies and personalities, drawing national attention and massive infusions of campaign money to both sides — was predicted to drive massive turnout in the city. 

It didn’t.

In all — counting early and election day ballots — 58,259 voters took part in Tuesday’s mayoral election, according to the unofficial election night tally.

Of those, 15,296 were early votes.

There are still 2,615 absentee ballots left to count.

That adds up to 60,874 votes. That’s a turnout rate of 40.3 percent.

Put another way: three out of five of the 151,055 registered voters in the city sat this one out.

That’s livelier than the June 22 Democratic primary, certainly: Just one out of five of the city’s registered Democrats took part in that. There were 23,439 votes cast in the primary. Walton alone won more votes than that in Tuesday’s general election. 

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The last time a Buffalo mayor’s race came down to the general election — as opposed to being settled in the Democratic primary — was 2005, when Brown won his first term.

There were 74,623 votes cast in that election, according to the elections board archives. That amounted to a turnout of 42 percent.

While the turnout rate was similar in the two elections, far fewer voters went to the polls this year compared to 2005. Back then, there simply were more registered voters in the city.

And, in case you’re wondering: Buffalo’s population in 2005 was about the same as it is today. The recently reported rise in the city’s population has brought us back to where it was when Brown first took office.

Brown won that election with 62 percent of the vote against Kevin Helfer — now Brown’s parking commissioner — who had the Conservative and Republican party lines.

In his next three elections, Brown dispatched primary challenges and cruised to general election victories with no serious competition and dismal, though rising, turnout:

  • In 2009, 26,464 ballots were cast in the general election, with then South District Council Member Mickey Kearns — whom Brown beat in the Democratic primary — winning a handful of write-in votes.
  • In 2013, 38,179 votes were cast. After beating Bernie Tolbert in the primary, Brown faced Sergio Rodriguez, a Republican with little money and no party support in a city dominated by Democrats.
  • In 2017, the vote tally was 45,746. Mark Schroeder, who lost the Democratic primary to Brown, appeared on the Reform Party line in the general election and Taniqua Simmons ran a write-in campaign.

Brown won six on nine Council districts in Tuesday’s election. He fared best in the South District, which broke his way by greater than a two-to-one margin, giving him about one-fifth of his 34,273 votes.


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He also won big in Lovejoy and North, substantially in Delaware and Fillmore, and by a mere nine votes in University, where Council Member Rasheed Wyatt endorsed Walton.

Walton won Niagara by 13 percent and by lesser margins in Ellicott and Masten — formerly bulwarks of Brown’s electoral machine.

It’ll be another month before we know exactly how much was spent by (and on behalf of) the two campaigns. As of Monday, the number was about $3.4 million between Brown, Walton, and outside organizations with an interest in the race.