Oakland residents hit the polls

By Gwenn Barney

Four voting machines stood ready in Posvar Hall yesterday. Pitt juniors Brittany Quinn and… Four voting machines stood ready in Posvar Hall yesterday. Pitt juniors Brittany Quinn and Kate Fricchione sat nearby, prepared to assist voters as election judge and inspector, respectively, for Oakland’s Ward 4, District 8. The only thing missing were the voters.

“I think we’ve had 10 voters,” Quinn said shortly after noon. “And two of them were us.”

Yesterday marked primary election day in Pennsylvania. Voters chose Republican and Democratic candidates to run for U.S. senator, governor and lieutenant governor, among other positions, in the November general elections.

Historically, primary elections represent a smaller voter turnout than general elections. That trend held true in Oakland, where many students had already left the city for the summer.

The county elections division reported that 25 percent of its 900,128 registered voters cast ballots in yesterday’s elections, while about 69 percent of registered voters participated in the November 2008 general elections.

The Oakland breakdowns were not available for every race at press time, but in Ward 4, which includes Oakland, 716 people voted for a female county committee member and 672 voted for a a male county committee member, with 99 percent of the precincts reporting.

Many students who came out to vote were surprised by the lackluster turnout for this year’s elections. Senior Brandon Miller remembers waiting in lines that were “out the door” during the 2008 primaries, when Barack Obama ran against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination.

“I knew it wouldn’t be nearly as bad, but there’s no one here,” Miller said, adding that the lack of turnout makes each individual vote more important.

Miller was not the only person who noticed a low turnout among young voters.

“Typically, when you look at the numbers, it is hard to get the 18-25 electoral out there,” said Chet Harhut, Pennsylvania’s state commissioner of elections.

Harhut, a Pitt alumnus, said the state government tried to incite young voters to participate in elections by sending out voting reminders in text messages and by using Facebook. He felt that the tight Democratic Senate race between incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter and challenger Rep. Joe Sestak might also improve the turnout.

Pitt senior Vince Schiarelli was specifically excited to vote in the senatorial contest. He said he voted for Sestak.

“It took me a while, but I figured Arlen’s getting old,” said Schiarelli, who votes regularly in the primary elections. “Sometimes, the vote for your party is more important than the general election.”

Though some students came to election centers with the intent to vote, others found themselves casting ballots after they saw the machines set up on their way to classes.

“It seems like most of our voters are coming through for classes, see us here and decide to vote,” Fricchione said.

Senior Adam Stough said he votes in every election but honestly didn’t remember that Tuesday was an election day until passing by the machines in Posvar Hall. He ended up voting for Auditor General Jack Wagner instead of Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, the other candidate he was considering in the gubernatorial race. State Sen. Anthony Williams and Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel also ran for the Democratic nomination for governor.

Voter turnout in primary elections has decreased significantly across the county since the 2008 elections. In 2008, 379,238 of the 913,628 registered voters in Allegheny County voted. During last year’s primary for mayor and other offices, only 183,918 of 902,976 registered voters entered the voting booth.

Pitt political science professor Susan Hansen gives students two words when asked about the importance of student participation in primary elections: tuition tax.

Hansen said the Fair Share Tax, a tax proposed last year by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, nearly passed because of students’ apathy at the polls.

“What really elected the mayor was the primary,” Hansen said of the 2009 primary.”Students just didn’t come out.”

Hansen feels that the poor student turnout in primary elections can be attributed in large part to a lack of media coverage. “There hasn’t been nearly enough hype and ads,” she said. “Just comparing this to 2008.”

She also said that registration presents a problem for college students, because of the frequent changes in address associated with college life. Despite these challenges, Hansen encourages students to pay attention to local and state governmental elections, especially with the impact the upcoming general election will have on higher education and Port Authority funding.

Sitting and waiting for voters to come late in the day at the Posvar election site, Quinn and Fricchione recalled the time they spent in political science classrooms. Today they learned a new lesson.

“We learned people don’t vote,” Fricchione said.