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The status quo strikes back

Byron Brown supporters hand out stamps and literature to voters outside Canisius’s Student Center on Tuesday. (Kyra Laurie for The Griffin)

While Virginia captured national attention for its swing from 2020 Biden bastion to 2021 Republican haven, and New Jersey Democratic Governor Phil Murphy squeaked by his GOP opponent, Western New York reaffirmed its moderate reputation. Leftist India Walton fell to centrist Byron Brown in Buffalo, Hamburg voters dismissed far-right Stefan Mychajliw and the two parties each took one countywide office.

Walton wanted to “change how progressive politics are viewed in upstate New York.” She certainly brought attention to progressive politics; Republicans tried, in vain, to tie Democratic opponents to her. It’s notable that the candidates who led these efforts — Mychajliw and comptroller candidate Lynne Dixon — lost.

While Dr. Kevin Hardwick helped Democrats flip the comptroller’s office, other elections kept party power as is. Democrats maintained a county legislature majority, the sheriff’s office stayed in Republican hands and even three voting reforms were handily defeated.

Hardwick secured over 110,000 votes to win the comptroller’s office, and the legislative seat he is vacating was won by Democrat John Bargnesi. When he spoke with The Griffin last week, Rich Horner poo-pooed the effects of Lynne Dixon’s last-minute mailer strategy. He appears accurate; Erie County voters gave Hardwick a six-point margin for emphasis.

And it should be noted that we were wrong to overestimate the importance of a plan for the office. The proof is in the pudding: Hardwick won by a healthy margin by tapping into widespread dislike for Mychajliw and his own decades of public exposure, without needing specific plans. Maybe it really was “the politics of hope,” not a 20-point plan, that triumphed over Dixon and the “politics of fear.”

A post-mortem of the Dixon campaign has to focus on her gamble to discredit Hardwick, an effort defended by campaign manager Chris Grant as “clever and creative.” It’ll be interesting to see how her association with Mychajliw and the shady mailer tactic she condoned will affect her previously good reputation in future races. She’s now lost countywide races for executive and comptroller.

If the results of the closest county race — between 9th-district incumbent John Gilmour and Republican challenger Frank Bogulski — hold up, Democrats will keep their 7–4 majority in the county legislature. Even without Gilmour, they’d have a slim 6–5 edge.

The most disappointing result of the night was Kim Beaty’s presumed (pending count absentee ballot) loss to the inexperienced, incumbent-endorsed John Garcia. The difference in quality between Beaty and Garcia is as large as or larger than that between Hoak and Mychajliw, Brown and Walton or Hardwick and Dixon. Beaty is a good person with plans and experience. Garcia has a good life story and time as a cop but not a “smidgen of understanding about the job he’s actually running for,” as we put it a month ago.

The Beaty loss is a tough one to swallow: if a strong Democrat can’t win against a weak Republican when city turnout is elevated due to a competitive mayoral race, there is no incumbent to worry about, and other candidates are taking votes from the Republican, how could the party ever win this office?

In another disappointment, three of the Democratic state legislature’s proposals went down to large defeat. Proposals to change redistricting laws, allow same-day voter registration and legalize no-excuse absentee voting — the subject of intense backlash from the right, especially the Conservative Party — were rejected by more than 60% of Erie County voters. As state measures, they could still be passed if “yes” votes from other areas of the state overcome Erie County’s “no” vote margin, but that appears unlikely.

The voting reform proposals would help Democrats if they pass. They help Democrats, though, because they are fair. The first proposal, to change redistricting laws, would cap the number of state senators at 63, count all residents (not just citizens) for purposes of drawing district lines and count incarcerated people at their place of last residence (rather than where they are incarcerated).

The most objectionable of these suggested reforms is counting all residents rather than just citizens. These residents consume resources that localities depend on the state to help fund. Localities can’t kick these people out, and if they didn’t live in that area they might live in another part of the state. It’s reasonable to compensate these areas with more clout. After years of benefiting from irrational and unfair Senate districts, Republicans are loath to see rational lines give Democrats an edge.

As for the no-excuse absentee ballot, the only people its rejection hurts are honest people. Dishonest people can request an absentee ballot by feigning disability or election-day absence, while honest people will still have to trek to the polls for little reason. Voting should be made as easy as possible.

The 2020 election, which effectively had no-excuse absentee voting because COVID-19 concerns could be declared as an excuse, saw scant evidence of fraud in Erie County — and that was with an expedited, first-time process during a presidential election year. The legislature would have a lot more time to plan for absentee ballots in a slower election in 2022 (granted, the governor and Congressional midterm elections will draw more turnout than this year).

20 states allow same-day registration. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, same-day registrants in these states must provide proof of residency (a utility bill for example) and identity (typically a driver’s license). Multiple statutory safeguards can be imposed. Provisional ballots, in which a ballot is not counted until voter identification is confirmed, are used. Statewide checks of voter ID, to prevent a person from voting multiple times, and enhanced penalties are other ways to ensure election integrity.

The mayor’s race wasn’t as close as we anticipated, but it wasn’t how the mayor described it either: “The people chose one of the greatest comeback stories in our history.” Settle down, Byron Brown. Write-in campaigns rarely have the resources his campaign had. The stamps his workers passed out were admittedly a good idea, but not the sign of a scrappy underdog. India Walton had a band of passionate supporters at many polling sites. Unfortunately for her, however, passion doesn’t translate into votes.

Walton had a relatively small number of people spend a lot of time at the polls. Brown, using resources Walton could not have dreamed of had she lost the primary, had a lot of people spend a few minutes at the polls. Walton made it easy for people to vote for her in that she got the Democratic line, but Brown’s resources made him practically a line of his own. Plus, people got a collectible stamp for their efforts.

The suburbs produced a few stories. One Cheektowaga race came down to .015%; there is just one vote separating Brian Pilarski’s 6,745 supporters from Vernon Thompson’s 6,744. Orchard Park expanded their town board and secured a GOP majority. West Seneca will have a Republican majority on its town board for the first time in half a century. They’ll be able to pass term limits, a divisive issue stymied by the current Democratic majority.

The towns were a tossup: the Democratic victories in Amherst and Hamburg were offset by historic GOP wins in West Seneca and Orchard Park. Mayoral infighting in Buffalo was won by the moderate Brown. Democrats cemented their county legislative majority, but they couldn’t turn a 2-to-1 voter registration advantage into the first Democratic sheriff in decades, and Buffalo’s first Black female sheriff ever.

The past few years have seen regional politics rubberband between Chris Collins–esque conservatives and India Walton–style socialist politics. There were few upsets or radical victories. In the end, inertia won: the Democrats control the county and comptroller, the sheriff is a Republican and Byron Brown is Buffalo mayor.

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