In 2012, Republicans mustered vote better in Pa.

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There's a Democrat in the White House, but don't be quick to thank Democrats.

Though President Barack Obama won Pennsylvania, preliminary ballot results suggest his victory came in spite of declining Democratic voter interest, which sank from the heady heights of 2008 in both Allegheny County and statewide.

Though actual party breakdowns won't be available for weeks, preliminary state figures show nearly all counties that lean Democrat saw a decline in participation since 2008 -- about 2 percent. Counties with a Republican majority, on the other hand, saw a slight uptick.

In Allegheny County, participation fell in both Republican and Democratic communities. But Democratic strongholds felt the pain much more, losing three times as many voters to absenteeism as Republican towns.

PG graphic: Voter turnout in Allegheny County
(Click image for larger version)

Add it all up and only 67 percent of residents registered to vote actually cast a ballot in Allegheny County, down from 69 percent in 2008.

It's the same story across the nation, political scientists say. After a grueling campaign season and more than $2 billion spent on both sides, many Democratic voters still decided to stay home -- and Republicans came out.

"It certainly looks as though Republicans re-engaged in this election," said Michael McDonald, an associate professor at George Mason University and head of the university's United States Elections Project. He believes national voter turnout may be as low at 60 percent once official results are announced. "That's one of the reasons the margin was narrowed."

Why? For much the same reason Democrats voted in force in 2008, Mr. McDonald said. Say what you will of Mr. Obama's charisma, but the professor credits much of his victory to widespread resentment against George W. Bush, an animus that has found a new home in the right against the current incumbent.

"It's easier to be against something than to be for it," he said. "Democrats in 2008 were very much against George Bush -- they were using that as their rallying cry to reject Republicans. This time around, you see exactly the opposite. The Democrats have to be for Obama, and the Republicans can be against him."

But at the local level, many of the classic turnout trends still apply. Grayer, wealthier communities -- Thornburg, Ben Avon Heights and Bradford Woods -- will always beat out the McKees Rocks and the Millvales in turnout. The five worst-performing communities had an average median income of just over $29,000, while the top five towns had $104,000.

Turnout in communities with a sizeable minority population also compared poorly to whiter towns, though engagement among both dropped by about the same amount from 2008. The voting precinct with the lowest turnout -- just 15 percent -- sits in a corner of the Hill District.

Many political scientists eye turnout figures suspiciously, preferring to compare the number of ballots cast to the total population of voting-age citizens, a more reliable baseline. Motor-voter initiatives and other registration drives, while increasing access to voting, have inflated the number of unengaged citizens on the rolls, University of Pittsburgh economist Christopher Briem said.

And then there's the simple fact that not all votes have been counted. At the Allegheny County Elections Division, employees will start Friday to verify 3,000 to 4,000 provisional ballots before they begin counting next week.

Over the course of campaign seasons, the county also issued about 35,000 absentee ballots -- and some from military service members are still being turned in.

Employees must check each ballot and make sure the voter did not vote in a different district. They must also check to see if the provisional ballot included the appropriate races for the voter's district.

Still, that isn't likely to change Allegheny County's top dog for voting, the community with the highest turnout across the county. That's tiny Rosslyn Farms, with just 391 registered voters -- and 327 who made it to the polls.

electionspa - state

Andrew McGill: amcgill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1497. Paula Reed Ward contributed to this report.


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