WILKES-BARRE — Don’t expect a large turnout for Tuesday’s primary election — history shows that people just don’t turn out to vote in non-presidential years.
Local political experts say that needs to change, since most of the offices being contested are those that affect voters the most.
It will be interesting to see what percentage of Democrats and Republicans cast a ballot in the primary election — there are 107,268 registered Democrats in Luzerne County and 74,573 registered Republicans. Those are the latest numbers from the Luzerne County Election Bureau.
Whatever the turnout is, those voting will decide who gets to run for Luzerne County Council, who will be on the November ballot for municipal councils and boards of supervisors, school boards and who will run for magisterial district judge. Candidates for a few statewide judicial seats are also being chosen.
Jeff Brauer, political science professor at Keystone College, said these elections can be the most important elections in terms of actual impact on voters’ everyday lives.
“The eventual winners will decide local tax rates, as well as address a wide variety of services — schools, roads, sanitation, public transportation, policing, firefighting, etc. — on which citizens depend,” Brauer said. “Therefore, the primaries in these cases are indeed the real elections that count.”
Brauer said even more important, in areas that are dominated by one party — which is true of many communities in Luzerne County — the winner of the primary is almost assured to win the general election.
“Citizens should take these primary elections seriously and make sure they cast their votes so that their preferences are taken into account by their local officials,” Brauer said.
Despite the importance of these non-presidential year elections, Brauer said primary elections almost always draw a small voter turnout. Brauer added that this is even more true during odd-year elections, such as this year, since odd-year elections involve lower profile positions.
“These local races attract little public attention and limited media coverage, and the campaign budgets are too small to buy much, if any, advertisements,” Brauer said. “These races often involve little competition with an incumbent running against no challengers.”
Thomas J. Baldino, Ph.D., professor of political science at Wilkes University, said democracies don’t function well if citizens fail to participate by voting and fulfilling other civic obligations, like jury duty, paying taxes and respecting the rule of law.
Sadly, Baldino said, less than 60 percent of the voter-eligible population participated in the 2016 presidential election, and historically, presidential elections attract the highest percentages of voters. He said turnout during non-presidential primary and general election years is significantly less, in the neighborhood of 30 to 40 percent, depending on the office.
“I will be surprised if turnout in tomorrow’s primary election exceeds 30 percent,” Baldino said.
Baldino agreed that the irony is that municipal government offices and other local elected officials, such as school board members, have much greater influence on the lives of the average person than the U.S. president.
“The average person should be far more interested in local races than federal races (not to say that federal elections are unimportant), but the typical person isn’t,” Baldino said.
Baldino said the most glaring example of the consequences of few voters is that voters make decisions with little or no information about the candidates.
“If history teaches us anything about tomorrow’s primary, it’s that turnout for these and the other races will be low,” Baldino said.
David Sosar, political science professor at King’s College, said the primary is important because it could mean the changing of the guard in a majority of a township, or council members in a city.
“Whatever changes can and will happen will affect the local citizens a lot,” Sosar said.
Sosar said many people don’t see the importance of these elections. He said many are overtired from the past presidential election and don’t want to talk about Republicans and Democrats running for office again this close.
“But the fact is that local officials affect the people in towns across Pennsylvania much more than any other public officials,” Sosar said. “The turnout tomorrow will most likely be very small. I would hope that we could get out between 20-to-25 percent of the registered voters, but that may be hard to do. With few exceptions, I haven’t heard about many hotly contested races and that’s the only thing that would bring out some voters.”
Sosar said low turnout is just a fact of life in these primaries.
“I would hope that we somehow could turn this around,” he said.
Brian F. Carso, J.D., Ph.D., associate professor of history and government at Misericordia University, said a lot of people who vote in national elections tend to skip local elections, when in fact local elections can have a greater impact on everyday life.
Carso, who serves on a school board, said everyone knows that school board decisions affect the education of our children.
“But voters should also understand that school boards have an impact on homeowners’ property values, on whether businesses find an educated workforce in a community, on whether young people stay local or go elsewhere to continue their lives,” Carso said. “The list goes on, but the point is that the quality of everyday life in our communities is ultimately the subject of local elections. It’s worth the time to seek out the best candidates and to respect those of our neighbors who are willing to serve.”
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.
2017 Primary Election
Polls open: 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Find your polling place: tinyurl.com/mvopz4j
To view Tuesday’s ballot
Go to: tinyurl.com/n59szcx