Voter turnout expected to by high Tuesday as Democrats, Republicans are energized
Deborah Watt had seen enough.
The 67-year-old Murrysville woman said she couldn’t comprehend what happened as she watched election results roll in two years ago and saw that Donald Trump had been elected president. Watt, a lifelong Democrat, said she was in tears.
She decided right then she had to do more than just vote.
So, Watt started to attend political organizing meetings in and around Murrysville and this year decided to get out to stump for Democratic candidates.
“My story is identical to countless other women. After a couple days of mourning, I decided I had to do something,” Watt said. “I was kind of searching for places to help, and eventually I found my niche.”
Watt’s story is one that has repeated itself throughout Westmoreland County and the country as political leaders and experts said public engagement in the political process has skyrocketed — among both Democrats and Republicans — since the 2016 election.
Just how much of an impact the increased interest will have at the polls won’t be known until late Tuesday, but officials are preparing for a voter turnout that far exceeds what is usually seen during the midterm election.
Pennsylvania voters will elect congressional representatives in all 18 districts and the Senate while deciding races for governor and representatives to the state House and Senate.
In Westmoreland County, elections bureau director Beth Lechman said turnout could be has high as 55 percent. Turnout was 40 percent for the midterms four years ago. County officials in the weeks prior to the election processed more than 6,000 applications for absentee voters, about a third more than usual for midterm elections.
“We’re seeing a great deal of interest, and with the publicity the election is getting, we expect turnout to exceed what we typically see,” Lechman said.
G. Terry Madonna, director of Franklin & Marshall’s Center for Politics and Public Affairs, said stories such as Watt’s are what is driving interest in Tuesday’s election.
“There isn’t any doubt more people are certain to vote,” Madonna said. “Trump is driving this. All midterms are referendums of the president, but we’ve never seen anything like this.”
At stake is control of Congress, where Republican’s hold majorities in both the House and the Senate. Where once these races would generate more than just a few yawns, political leaders said voters are engaged at levels they haven’t seen before.
That interest has resulted in more people registering to vote.
In Westmoreland County, more than 1,000 people have become newly registered since the 2016 election.
Democrats still hold a slight lead among registered voters but where the party two decades ago had more than a 3-to-1 edge over Republicans, that number has been cut to just a sliver. The latest count listed 110,324 Democrats and 107,294 registered Republicans in Westmoreland.
And Republicans continue to gain. Statistics show that more than 1,600 Democrats in Westmoreland County joined the GOP this year while just 552 Republicans changed to Democrat.
Rachel Shaw, chairwoman of the Westmoreland County Democratic Committee, said that despite those GOP gains, there is a real excitement among her party’s voters and expects that to have an impact at the polls.
“This area used to be easy to win for Democrats,” Shaw said, “but that changed, and I attribute that to people not wanting to be involved, thinking their vote doesn’t matter. That’s changed.”
She said voters such as Watt will have a big impact. Women and younger voters have become more active in the political process, which is a demographic expected to help Democrats, she said.
“You can see that in our volunteers,” Shaw said. “We’re seeing a lot of woman and a lot of college students. We’re busting our butts to get everyone to the polls.”
Kerry Jobe, the chairman of the Westmoreland County Republican Committee, said it’s the GOP voters who are energized.
“Around here, the sentiment is that President Trump is doing a great job,” Jobe said. “The last couple of weeks have been crazy.”
For voters such as Watt, the 2016 presidential election was a turning point.
“It was a real eye-opener,” she said. “I think there are are a lot of us who voted all the time but felt that it wasn’t enough, and it obviously isn’t anymore.”
Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293 or [email protected]