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early returns Powered by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Allegheny County voter turnout for primary races among lowest in a decade

Fewer than 1 in 5 Allegheny County voters cast a ballot Tuesday, the second-lightest primary election turnout in the county in at least a decade, unofficial returns showed Wednesday.

Campaign observers cast a variety of blame for the 17.2 percent showing, which probably stems from political fatigue, a shortage of high-profile races and a Pittsburgh mayoral contest that appeared uncompetitive, they said.

“Just from a psychological standpoint, I think the past year has been very difficult for voters. I think they’re a little bit confused,” said Nancy Patton Mills, who chairs the county Democratic Committee. “There may be some buyer remorse from the Republican side [after the presidential election], and there may be some disappointment and confusion still carrying over on the Democratic side.”

Primary turnout in non-presidential election years has ranged from roughly 25 percent in 2007 to a low around 15 percent in 2014, according to county data. Within Pittsburgh city limits, analysts put Democratic turnout Tuesday at about 23 percent, helped in part by a hard-fought city council race in the South Hills.

“Competitive races bring out voters. And without a citywide competitive race, that put a damper on turnout,” said Jacob Redfern, campaign manager for City Council District 4 candidate Ashleigh Deemer. She lost that contest to Anthony Coghill, 50, of Beechview, who’s on track to face Republican Cletus Cibrone-Abate in the Nov. 7 general election.

While news media presented the city mayoral race as a competitive affair, Mr. Redfern said, incumbent Mayor Bill Peduto lacked any opposition that could match his financing, messaging and popularity. Mr. Peduto swept his Democratic challengers, Councilwoman Darlene Harris and the Rev. John C. Welch, with nearly 69 percent of the vote.

“We took it to be competitive, so we put in the resources to run a full campaign,” Mr. Peduto said Wednesday. “ … At no time did we look at this as anything other than a full campaign effort.”

He said off-year elections in the city typically see turnout of 25 percent to 30 percent. Tuesday’s ballots in the county featured a host of municipal, county-level and judicial races, few with widely known candidates.

“They’re not as sexy to a lot of people, so they don’t turn out as much for school board or local council, township, commissioners, [contests] like that. People don’t show up because of a lack of interest,” said Dave Majernik, vice chairman for the Republican Committee of Allegheny County.

He suggested “a hangover from all the hoopla from the presidential election last year” likely kept some voters at home, too. Others may sideline themselves because they’re weary from overall political negativity, including infighting and “vicious” Democratic accusations against President Donald Trump, Mr. Majernik said.

More than 70 percent of county voters showed up for the 2016 presidential election.

“We do a lot of wringing of our hands over why people aren’t voting. But if they’re not informed and not motivated, maybe that’s better that they’re not voting,” Mr. Majernik said. “I don’t know.”

City Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak said the anemic turnout raised questions over the county Democratic Committee. Voter registration in the county has long favored the party.

“I think the committee has been focused on the endorsement process rather than the grassroots turnout process — I think to the detriment of our civic engagement as a whole,” said Ms. Rudiak, who represents council District 4. She is not pursuing re-election.

Ms. Patton Mills said a lot of Democrats support the endorsement process as “a way for a candidate to get to know people.” The committee is building on strides made in Democratic turnout last year, and the low numbers this week mirrored a statewide issue, she said.

“It wasn’t just the Allegheny County Democratic Committee,” Ms. Patton Mills said.

Back at city hall, Mr. Peduto said local elections deliver the biggest impact on taxes, quality of life and opportunities for children.

“Everybody turns out for a presidential race,” he said. “But in many ways, it’s your local government that has a bigger impact on your day-to-day life.”

Adam Smeltz: 412-263-2625, asmeltz@post-gazette.com, @asmeltz.