If you’re a Harrisburg voter, last month’s municipal election may have seemed like a snoozer.
The city had some big races this year, but all the action was in the primary back in May. By the time November’s general election rolled around, the contests for school board and City Council were all but decided, since the Democrats had no Republican opposition.
Then there was the county.
Dauphin County had numerous seats up for grabs this year, and they proved to be surprisingly competitive.
Sure, in the end, it was more like Groundhog Day than Election Day, as, once again, Republicans swept every row office—from treasurer to register of wills to recorder of deeds. But it was only the last batch of results on election eve, flowing in after 11 p.m., that put several GOP incumbents over the top.
Indeed, for much of the night, it appeared that the Democrats just might break the Republican Party’s stranglehold on the county’s elected positions. And, to the extent that it was nip and tuck for the first few hours after the polls closed, much of the credit goes to the city of Harrisburg.
For some reason, Harrisburg precincts tend to be among the first to report their results. Sure, there are some laggards but, often, the first half-dozen or so precincts to report are all from the city.
In overwhelmingly Democratic Harrisburg, these early results offered some hope for the challengers, as the city turnout in this election was stronger than expected—at least as expected by me.
Going into Election Day, I wasn’t optimistic at all about turnout.
First of all, it was, for Harrisburg, an “off-off year” election. Not only were there no presidential, congressional or legislative contests to juice turnout, but there also was no mayoral election—the worst of all possible worlds to get city dwellers to the polls.
Yes, there were important races for school board and City Council, but, as I said above, there was little hanging in the balance as those outcomes had basically been decided during the May primary.
Then there was the fact that the county announced, rather late in the cycle, that it had to move several polling locations to comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. I expected that move to depress turnout in several precincts, since the new locations tended to be far less convenient for most voters and, in a few cases, were actually outside the voting districts.
But I was wrong.
Turnout was not only significantly higher than the comparable voting period of 2015, but was also higher than in 2017, when the city’s incumbent mayor was on the ballot.
Every district reported higher turnout in Harrisburg, and, digging down into the data, several wards stood out. Riverside’s Ward 14 and Midtown’s Ward 5 and Ward 12 each jumped by more than 100 votes from 2015 to 2019. But there were gains nearly everywhere, from the river wards to Allison Hill to Uptown.
In 2019 overall, Harrisburg’s turnout citywide increased by about 35 percent compared to 2015. In Dauphin County as a whole, turnout was up by 26 percent. Having said that—Harrisburg still has work to do to pull even with the county overall, as its 20-percent overall turnout lagged the county’s 30-percent showing.
So then what’s the takeaway? Why did things improve in the city?
First of all, Democrats made it a race, aggressively challenging several of the Republican incumbents. For instance, in 2015, Clerk of Courts Dale Klein was unopposed in the general. This year, she faced former city Councilman Brad Koplinski, who, for a time on election night, looked like he might pull off an upset. As I’ve said before in this column, campaigns matter, and they matter even more when trying to unseat a long-time incumbent.
Secondly, city Democrats may be fired up to vote given the national political climate. If so, the 2019 election may be just an appetizer for 2020. If that’s true, buckle up, as turnout could be impressive indeed next year not only for the presidential but for the legislative and congressional races.
Third, I can’t help but be impressed with the volume of votes that came out of certain wards in Harrisburg. Turnout in several wards, particularly in Midtown and Uptown, was up by more than 40 percent in 2019 compared to 2015. Something is going on here. Most likely, this is due to additional population, with the new residents more inclined to engage politically. And, in fact, county data show increases in voter registration in every river ward except one (10-1).
I’d like to wrap up this wonky election column with a deep bow to the hyper-engaged residents of Harrisburg’s Ward 14—Riverside and far Uptown. They turned out to the tune of 41 percent of registered voters in this low-stakes, off-off year affair. I’ve been told that, if you’re looking for community in the Harrisburg area, Riverside is the place to be, and these numbers back that up. My reporter’s fedora is off to them.
Lawrance Binda is the editor-in-chief of TheBurg.