Some voters unaware of special election to fill Orie's senate seat

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Tuesday's special election to choose Jane Orie's replacement in the state Senate was special in more ways than one.

Held in late summer, it caught some voters by surprise.

"I had no clue," said Carlos Echevarria, 50, of Pine, who was upset to find out that an election was being held Tuesday and he didn't know about it.

"I think it's a waste of time to hold an election, if no one knows about it," he said, adding that he absolutely would have voted had he known the election was being held.

"And if you don't vote, you can't complain," he added. "I wish they would have advertised it better."

Mr. Echevarria wasn't the only voter taken off-guard.

"My dad told me about the election, but I forgot because who thinks about voting in August?" said Patti Huber, 47, of McCandless. "It's not what people expect. How can you expect an accurate result if no one expects there to be an election?"

Ric Gregson, 53, recently moved to the Wexford area from Naples, Fla., and was surprised to learn that an election was being held Tuesday.

"Voting in August is not a culture I'm accustomed to," he joked.

The election was held to choose a state senator for the 40th District to replace Orie, who resigned her seat in May after her conviction on charges of public corruption. She had served 11 years in the state Senate.

Republican Randy Vulakovich, a former Shaler police officer, handily defeated Democrat Sharon Brown, a health care consultant from McCandless, in the special election.

The 40th District encompasses Bradford Woods, Etna, Franklin Park, Hampton, Marshall, McCandless, Pine, Richland, Ross, Shaler, West Deer and West View in Allegheny County and Adams, Buffalo, Callery, Clinton, Connoquenessing Borough, Connoquenessing Township, Cranberry, Evans City, Forward, Harmony, Jackson, Mars, Middlesex, Penn, Seven Fields, Valencia and Zelienople in Butler County.

The voter turnout -- unofficially 13.57 percent in Allegheny County -- reflected voters' lack of knowledge about the election.

Judy Groskopf, a judge of elections in Ross, said Allegheny County was prepared for fewer voters.

"I think the board of elections didn't expect much voter turnout because they gave us two fewer machines than usual," she said. Later, she learned that polling places throughout most of the 40th District received fewer machines.

Fewer voters than usual trickled into McIntyre Elementary School throughout the day, and Mrs. Groskopf attributed that to a lack of advance coverage of the election by the local media.

"They didn't advertise it well enough," she said, noting that the candidates did mail reminders to voters in the days leading up to the election.

"A lot of people weren't aware of the election, and it has affected voter turnout," said Marilou Nicklas, who was working at the polling place at Northmont United Presbyterian Church in McCandless.

Some voters knew about the election but questioned its timing. Will Kraft, 42, of West Deer, said he was aware of it but did not think it was a good idea to hold the election in August.

"It's a change of pace, but we should probably stick to the regularities," he said. "People are used to voting in the fall. An August election takes us out of the norm and should have a direct impact in [voter] preparedness, such as researching candidates effectively."

Richard and Mary Margaret Wright of McCandless follow politics closely and were concerned that they may be out of town during the election, so they voted by absentee ballots.

"We didn't know where we would be because we travel a lot during the summer," Mr. Wright, 70, said. But he wondered why the date was chosen.

"August is such a strange time for an election, it's out of the clear blue -- why now?" he asked.

The date was chosen by Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley, who, as presiding officer in the state Senate, is authorized to decide when special elections should be held. One requirement is that the election must be held more than 60 days after the vacancy occurs.

When Mr. Cawley set the date in late May, he said he chose early August because he wanted residents of the 40th District to have representation "as soon as possible."

Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, a Republican, said in a statement at the time that an August election would allow the new senator "to cast votes on several important fall issues, including pension reform and infrastructure investment."

For Nicole Nock, 22, of Ross, it didn't matter when the election was held. She is not a registered voter and doesn't plan on becoming one.

"I have no interest in politics," she said. "I've never voted."

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Jill Cueni-Cohen, freelance writer: First Published August 9, 2012 9:30 AM


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