Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Burg Blog: Turn It Out

A polling location on State Street in Harrisburg.

Recently, I received an email from a Derry Township resident with the thesis that county Judge Lori Serratelli lost her race last month because of poor voter turnout in Harrisburg.

The writer further pinned blame on the Dauphin County Democrats, saying the county committee didn’t do enough to get its voters, especially in Harrisburg, to the polls.

Indeed, voter turnout in Harrisburg in the general election last month was abysmal at about 18 percent of registered voters. However, I disputed the notion that the blame lay primarily with the committee’s efforts (or lack thereof), as many other factors played into the low turnout and, thus, Serratelli’s loss by 1,665 votes to John McNally for the last of three judgeships at stake.

Harrisburg’s high levels of transience and poverty are practically a formula for low turnout, a problem exacerbated last month by the lack of passion in the uncontested mayoral and council elections. All the energy, I wrote back to him, was in the primary election back in May. Having said that—if the general election turnout among Democrats had matched the primary’s turnout (still a lousy 23 percent), Serratelli still would have lost by a few hundred votes.

Nonetheless, I consider my e-mailer’s point well taken since, to me, election turnout is the single most important (and often most ignored by pundits) factor in determining who represents us. Does gerrymandering, big money or, now, Russian bots help sway elections? To some extent. But getting voters to the polls is a much more critical factor.

This point was driven home to me on Tuesday night as I watched the special election results roll in from the distant state of Alabama. Before then, I knew almost nothing about voter demographics in Alabama because, well, why would I? But, after a few hours of watching cable news coverage, I could converse pretty intelligently about Mobile versus Baldwin counties, the importance of the so-called black belt and the changing nature of the state’s suburbs.

By the end of the evening, I was most struck by all the blue on the map, which indicated that a majority of voters in a county had voted for the Democrat Doug Jones over the Republican Roy Moore. I wondered: Where the heck did all these blue voters come from, and where had they been hiding all these years?

To me, there it was—proof that plenty of Democratic votes existed in even the reddest of red states. That vote just needed to be mined.

A similar dynamic played out last year, only in reverse. In Pennsylvania, I never imagined that there were enough dormant or persuadable GOP votes to hand the state over to Donald Trump.

In the months before the 2016 general election, I would drive outside of Harrisburg and see long rows of Trump signs, seemingly on every lawn and barn, like some contagion had spread down one rural highway and up the next. I dismissed this, stuck in the conventional wisdom that these probably were not new voters and that, in these sparsely populated areas, there wouldn’t be enough of them to make a difference anyway.

I was wrong and then equally wrong thinking that this state couldn’t possibly flip so abruptly in just four years.

In both the Jones/Moore and Trump/Clinton cases, one could point to the weaknesses of the losing candidates. True enough, though both Moore and Hillary Clinton had large groups of passionate supporters, as well. They both lost very narrowly and may well have won if they had run better campaigns, not assumed victory and continued to dig ever deeper into their pools of persuadable voters.

Indeed, Moore performed quite well in most of white, rural Alabama, with his turnout better than one would expect from a special election in an off-off year. It just wasn’t to the level of the Trump mania that had swept over that demographic last year, a weakening that should have been anticipated.

And that brings me back to Dauphin County.

Long a Republican stronghold, Dauphin County is now majority Democratic (D’s 81,816, R’s 73,825 as of November). Yet Republicans still own the county, occupying every row office (nine of them) and controlling the board of commissioners and the courthouse. Why?

Demographics and socioeconomics certainly are reasons, as Republican voters tend to be older, whiter, wealthier and less transient, which all means higher rates of voting. These factors helped sink Judge Serratelli, a highly regarded jurist who likely lost simply because she had a “D” after her name.

But the county’s Democrats as a whole—the party, the candidates and the voters—are largely to blame.

Yes, the Democratic Party in Dauphin County has structural and demographic issues that are difficult to overcome. However, Democrats also hold a significant registration lead, and the county’s trend towards greater urbanization should increasingly work in their favor.

Put simply, the votes are out there for the Democrats. It’s now up to the party, its activists and its nominees to dig deep and mine every last one—and not just in Harrisburg but countywide. That will take time, money, commitment, leadership and much more organized, professional, energetic and better-run campaigns.

Alabama has shown that a Democrat can be elected under much less favorable circumstances—those votes just need to be fiercely excavated. The question now is: Do Democrats in Dauphin County have it in them?

Lawrance Binda is editor in chief of TheBurg.

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