Students lament low voter turnout at local elections


Thomas J. Yang

Students and community members voted in Posvar Hall Tuesday. About 80 people cast their vote at the polling station. (Photo by Thomas Yang | Senior Staff Photographer)

By Hannah Schneider, For The Pitt News

After last year’s presidential election results, Zoe Kovacs didn’t expect to be one of the only people at the polls Tuesday.

But when she showed up at Posvar Hall at 2 p.m., she was “appalled” to find she was only the 40th person to show up.

“[The poll workers] were all cheering, ‘40!’” she said. “And I said, ‘Are you serious?’”

Kovacs, a senior english writing and classics major, thought more people would be aware of Pennsylvania’s local elections since she saw a lot of people on social media encouraging participation in the election. But she said she was a victim of what she called “bubble syndrome” — surrounding herself with people who cared about voter turnout

“We’re in Posvar! People have class in here, people are walking by, there’s no line, I could’ve been in and out of here in 10 minutes if I wanted to. That’s just shocking to me,” she said.

Kovacs was one of about 80 people to vote at the Posvar polling station. Pitt students and members of the Oakland community came to vote on amendments and for elected offices, including justice of the state supreme court and local judgeships.

It was an off-year election — an election held on an odd-numbered year in which neither a presidential nor a midterm election takes place. Allegheny County saw about 212,000 ballots cast Tuesday, compared to about 660,000 in last year’s election. Some of Tuesday’s voters noticed this major difference in turnout.

Lauren Schlusser, a senior environmental studies and political science student, remembered last year’s presidential election drawing a much larger crowd. She said people do not pay as much attention to local elections compared to national elections, despite local results having a greater impact on people.

“I would say that overall, like everyone in the country, people tend to forget about [local elections],” she said. “Where I grew up is more like a small town, so elections were based on whose sign you saw the most in the yard.”

Schlusser said she no longer relies on lawn signs and now tries to take time to do research on political candidates. Not wanting to make an uninformed decision, she didn’t fill out certain parts of her ballot because she didn’t know enough about those candidates’ standings.

Still, she said she thinks local political involvement is important, regardless of what the results of the national elections are — especially if the results aren’t to the voter’s liking.

“I wasn’t a fan of the presidential outcome, but if I want to complain about how things are, I at least should exercise my rights as a citizen,” she said.

Senior political science major John Cubic, the 41st visitor to Posvar’s polling station, said he was always planning on voting. But the results of the presidential election inspired him to do more at the local level for the Democratic Party, including helping out with Mayor Bill Peduto’s campaign. He had hoped last year’s election results would similarly motivate his friends, but he wasn’t sure they had.

“I don’t know if they’re involved in the election as much as they like to talk about it,” he said. “They are more politically inclined now, but they still don’t participate as much.”

Cubic said he was shocked when poll workers told him he was the 41st person to come vote in Posvar — he said the numbers were already in the triple digits when he went last year.

“Last year I think I voted at 11 a.m. I was already 200 at like 11 p.m. And it’s what, 2 p.m. and it’s 41. It’s not ideal,” he said.

Senior business student Haley Grajewski voted for the first time in a Pittsburgh local election Tuesday — although she hadn’t planned to even visit her polling place until a friend sent her a Snapchat encouraging her to participate. Grajewski said she feels local elections receive little attention compared to national and international politics and therefore less people are aware of them.

“I should be more cognizant of it because it has more real impacts than sometimes the national ones do,” she said. “So I tried to get out today. But normally I don’t vote in the [smaller] elections.”

Keith Long, a graduate student studying pharmaceutical sciences, also participated in the local elections for the first time, citing last year’s presidential election as a motivator. He said he would have been inspired to vote in the local elections this year, regardless of the outcome last year since the debates between the presidential candidates had been so intense.

“Recent political outcomes have led me to realize that elections, no matter how small, are an important part of politics, an important part of [being] an American citizen … I made it kind of my duty to stop by and vote today,” he said.

Kovacs said she thinks local elections are more important than most people realize since the elections focus on more localized issues and officials.

“And if you’re not voting, then you’re not getting a say in something that’s probably going to affect you pretty directly,” she said.

Kovacs and her friends didn’t get more involved in this year’s local election compared to other years, but regardless of their campaign involvement and their political affiliations, they still found it important to place their ballots.

“I mean, even the fact that last night we were all sitting at our computers cramming and trying to figure out who to vote for I think is more than probably most people do,” she said.

Grajewski said voting in the local election was “much easier” than in the presidential one, although she thought the reason behind it was disappointing.

“There was a huge line when I came [during the presidential election], now they’re trying to get 50 people, which is a little sad,” she said.

Editor’s note: Zoe Kovacs used to work on the copy desk at The Pitt News.