White House race drives droves of voters to register, change parties
The big — and sometimes polarizing — personalities in the 2016 presidential race drove thousands of voters to county courthouses across Pennsylvania on Monday, the last day to register to vote or switch parties before the April 26 primary.
More than 4,900 Westmoreland County residents and about 15,800 Allegheny County residents have registered to vote this year, according to the Department of State. More than 164,000 new registrations have been logged statewide since Jan. 1.
In Westmoreland County, more than 7,260 voters switched parties. About 74 percent — or nearly 5,400 — moved to the Republican side, while the Democratic Party gained 1,860 voters, according to data from the Department of State.
Party switches in Allegheny County were more evenly split, with about 10,900 voters becoming Republicans and more than 9,600 moving to the Democrats, records show.
“We’ve been outpacing the Democrats in registration for a number of years,” said Michael Korns, chairman of Westmoreland County Republican Committee. Although Democrats in the county outnumber Republicans by more than 19,400 voters, the gap has narrowed during the past eight years, he said.
“Obviously, this year the excitement of the presidential race has kicked that into overdrive,” Korns said. “Candidly, we’re doing what we can to take advantage of the enthusiasm.”
Pennsylvania’s primary is closed, so voters must be registered as a Democrat or a Republican to cast ballots, and they must select nominees from their registered party.
MaryAnn Holmes, 75, of Youngwood, a lifelong Democrat, said she went to the courthouse in Greensburg to switch to the Republican Party primarily because of illegal immigration.
“I don’t like the way this administration has been going,” she said of President Obama’s tenure. “It has to be (billionaire businessman Donald) Trump.”
Eileen Grealish and Larry Barlow showed up at the Allegheny County Elections Division offices for the same reason: Trump.
Grealish, 62, an independent from Mt. Washington, thinks he’s a sideshow. Barlow, 65, a longtime Democrat, thinks he’d make a good president. Both wanted to change their voter registrations to cast primary votes accordingly.
“This is sort of an anti-Trump vote,” Grealish said. “I just think he’s inappropriate.”
Said Barlow of Greenfield: “I think the whole system is fixed and I think he’s coming in from the outside. … I’d like to see him shake everything up.”
John Schnaedter, executive director of the Republican Committee of Allegheny County, said any factor that encourages more people to vote is positive, “and Trump definitely helps that factor.”
But the passion about this year’s election goes both ways.
James Maiolie, 31, of New Alexandria said he decided to become a Democrat after 13 years as a Libertarian so he can vote for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Maiolie said he works 60 to 70 hours every week but doesn’t feel like he’s getting ahead. Sanders’ campaign, which has focused on economic inequality, resonates with him.
“It seems everything in this country is only for the wealthy,” said Maiolie, noting the relative growth of CEOs’ salaries compared with the pay of the average worker. “It’s out of control. Their profits are at an all-time high and benefits are at an all-time low.”
A small group of students from the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg — many supporting Sanders — stood near the Westmoreland courthouse on Monday encouraging people to register to vote. Lorraine Petrosky, chairwoman of the county Democratic Committee, said the students were so enthusiastic they called her on Easter to ask if they could pick up blank forms for their registration drive.
Petrosky said Democrats are doing well in online voter registrations but the party works year round to register people — whether at a party-sponsored event, a summer festival or at the party office.
“Sometimes you register Republicans, but that’s OK, that’s our job,” Petrosky said. “The more people out to vote, the better it is.”
“I was never really into politics until the last six years,” said Jim Brant, 65, who went to the Westmoreland County Courthouse on Monday to register for the first time.
Brant, who’s moving from Somerset County to Ligonier, said he decided to register “so Hillary Clinton doesn’t get into office.” He likes Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas but said that he would vote for “anyone (in November) who’s not a Democrat,” even Trump, the GOP front-runner.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich also is vying for the Republican nomination.
Schnaedter said that while Trump has sparked party switches and new registrations, his candidacy also has led to a flood of calls to the Allegheny County GOP’s office about what might happen at the Republican National Convention in July.
Because convention delegates in Pennsylvania — whom voters select in the primary — are not committed to a particular candidate, “a lot of people don’t know who they want to vote for because they don’t know what delegate is supporting which candidate,” Schnaedter said. “That’s a pretty big deal.”
Many political observers have speculated that if Trump doesn’t have enough delegates going into the convention to seal the nomination, delegates could broker a compromise to choose another Republican candidate to face the Democratic nominee in the general election.
Schnaedter said his impression is that most delegates say they’ll vote for the GOP candidate who wins the state on the first ballot at the convention, but they might go a different direction on a second round.
Staff writer Bob Bauder contributed to this report. Kari Andren is a Tribune-Review staff writer.