TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—Elections Day in Tompkins County saw fervent interest in certain races propel significantly higher turnout than previous off-year elections, particularly in contested races in the City of Ithaca and the Town of Caroline.
Overall, turnout appears to have been quite consistent from previous off-year elections from a countywide perspective. In 2023, 17,288 people cast ballots in the county as of Election Day, compared to 17,136 in 2019 and 17,191 in 2021, the last two off-year elections — which means there are not major state or Congressional offices on the line at the polls. Those numbers equal slightly above 30 percent voter turnout.
In 2018 and 2022, years with gubernatorial and Congressional elections that typically pull more people to the polls, about twice as many people voted than did in 2023.
Certain elections saw a turnout decrease, like in the Town of Dryden where turnout dropped significantly this year. But the strength of some elections in the city of Ithaca and the Towns of Danby and Caroline made up for those races to keep turnout around its norm.
Danby, for instance, saw 1,143 ballots cast overall in 2023, compared to 658 and 787 in the previous two off-year elections, according to turnout reports from the Tompkins County Board of Elections.
In the city of Ithaca’s elections, 3,616 people voted in the mayoral race, won by Democrat Robert Cantelmo, the only election to encompass the entire city exclusively. In 2022 and 2019, city elections drew 3,621 and 3,055 ballots, respectively. There was an atypical mayoral election in 2022 to fill the last year of former Mayor Svante Myrick’s term, a three-way race which was won by Mayor Laura Lewis.
With the issue of zoning on the mind of many Caroline residents, expectations of increased interest were fulfilled in the town’s elections. Mark Witmer won re-election to the supervisor role with 734 total votes. His opponent, Tonya VanCamp of the Connecting Caroline party, tallied 646 votes.
With one write-in vote, the total number of ballots cast (absent any affidavit ballot submissions, which weren’t a large factor in Caroline unlike other local races) was 1,398, compared to 2021 when Witmer won an unopposed election with just 500 votes total.
Caroline’s Town Council elections went similarly. In 2021, Kate Kelley-Mackenzie secured 498 votes in an unopposed election to win a two-year spot on council. In last week’s election, Kelley-Mackenzie, a Democrat, won a four-year seat with 731 votes.
In fact, each of the six council candidates in the Town of Caroline received more votes than the best-performing council candidate in 2021, Calvin Snow. Snow received 558 votes in that election; this year’s lowest vote-getter in the council elections, Republican Shari Conover, received 613.
Overall, using the number of ballots listed on the Board of Elections’ results page, it appears that Caroline saw an overall turnout of 1,398, which is nearly double the voter participation from 2021’s 722 voters and a 7.5% increase from 2019’s turnout.
The City of Ithaca’s turnout appears to be higher this year as well, though one-to-one comparisons to previous turnouts in city wards are impossible because this is the first election with new district lines in the city, changing the voting populations of each ward. As time goes on, more stable trends can be established with the new district lines in consideration.
Perhaps the most hotly contested election in the City of Ithaca, at least during campaign season, was between incumbent Alderperson Cynthia Brock and Southside Community Center Deputy Director Kayla Matos, running as part of the Solidarity Slate, in the race for a four-year term to represent Ward 1.
Matos, who defeated Brock in a surprising Democratic primary upset in June, received 761 votes (53.86%) in the general election last week while Brock, who continued her campaign as an independent after the primary, received 652 votes (46.14%).
The last Ward 1 election, a Brock victory in 2021, saw a total of 784 people vote in the ward, with Brock receiving 526 of those votes. This year, there were a total of 1,440 voters participating in the ward, a substantial increase of 84%.
Ward 1’s two-year seat, which was previously held by George McGonigal, saw 749 voters in McGonigal’s last electoral victory in 2019, in which he was unopposed. This year, with the caveat that the ward lines are different than the 2019 election, there were 1,331 votes in the election, in which current Second Ward Alderperson Phoebe Brown defeated Zachary Winn. Brown will shift from the Second Ward to the First Ward thanks to the new district lines.
But turnout was not up universally. In fact, the continued trend of weak turnout in the city’s Fourth Ward has thrown the race for Common Council’s four-year seat in that ward into question. The Fourth Ward is made up of a sizable Cornell University student population, even under the new district lines, which traditionally is not active in local elections.
Cornell University Student Assembly President Patrick Kuehl mounted a quiet write-in campaign to challenge incumbent Jorge DeFendini, who only generated 28 votes himself. Kuehl, whose future in Ithaca remains unclear even if he wins a spot, received just 12 write-in votes on Election Day, but over 50 affidavit and absentee ballots that will be counted this week will determine the final outcome.
For the ward’s two-year seat, DeFendini’s Common Council colleague Tiffany Kumar received just 38 votes, before affidavit and absentee ballots are counted. The 46 ballots cast in the Fourth Ward is, by far, the lowest number in any election in the entire county. The next fewest ballots cast in any Common Council race were 254 in the Fifth Ward.