Representing a majority, elected by a minority: Low voter turnout persists in special state Senate elections

Doug Mastriano and Joe Pittman.
Republican senators-elect Doug Mastriano (L) and Joe Pittman (R)

Paltry voter turnout Tuesday in a pair of special elections for the Pennsylvania state Senate means the Republican-controlled chamber will gain two new members who were voted into office by a sliver of their constituents.

Only a quarter of registered voters in the Indiana County-based 41st District, and a scant 17 percent of voters in the Adams County-based 33rd District, turned up at the polls earlier this week, according to a Capital-Star analysis of county election results.

Republican Doug Mastriano took home almost 70 percent of the ballots cast in the 33rd District race, capturing 20,576 votes to Democratic candidate Sarah Hammond’s 9,479.

Mastriano’s decisive victory puts him in line to succeed former Sen. Richard Alloway, who resigned in January to return to the private sector. He’ll represent a district that’s home to 171,394 registered voters — only 12 percent of whom voted for their incoming senator.

In the 41st District, Republican Joe Pittman got 24,908 votes to defeat Democrat Susan Boser. He will replace his former boss, Sen. Don White, who resigned in January to retire early.

Pittman will take his seat thanks to the support of just 17 percent of his electorate, which totals 149,010 registered voters.

Thanks to chronically low voter turnout in Pennsylvania’s off-year and municipal elections, Mastriano and Pittman won’t be the first senators-elect to arrive in Harrisburg this year with just a slim show of support from their constituents.

In April, just 16 percent of registered voters in western Pennsylvania’s 37th Senate District cast ballots for now-Sen. Pam Iovino, a Democrat.

That was enough to propel her to a narrow victory over Republican candidate D. Raja, in a special election where voter turnout was an abnormally high 30 percent.

Tuesday’s special elections were held on the same day as Pennsylvania’s municipal primary races, which typically see a turnout of 20 percent or less, according to Wanda Murren, a spokeswoman for the Department of State, which certifies election results submitted by county election offices.

The Department of State won’t release its unofficial vote counts until at least a week after Tuesday’s election. Even so, Murren said that nothing indicates that turnout this year was abnormally high. 

Lawmakers and election reform advocates blame the low turnout in primary elections on Pennsylvania’s closed primary system, which allows only registered Democrats and Republicans to cast ballots.

But since independents are eligible to vote in special elections, that doesn’t fully explain the meager participation in Tuesday’s senatorial races.

Veteran Franklin & Marshall college pollster Terry Madonna said the low turnout in those races could be the result of uncompetitive districts.

Unlike the tightly contested special election in the 37th District earlier this year, Republicans were favored to win Tuesday’s senate races, Madonna said. 

Department of State data show that registered Republicans compose 55 percent of the electorate in the 33rd District and 52 percent in the 41st District, respectively. 

Madonna said a lack of interest among voters could also dampen turnout, especially in an election like Tuesdays, where Pennsylvanians were also casting ballots in municipal, county and statewide judicial races.

“There’s so many offices up that the voters have very little knowledge about, and many are not competitive,” Madonna said. “With that, it’s hard to get a special election for senate or state house seat where you’ve got a decent turnout.”

He said the 25 percent turnout in the 41st District was “actually relatively high” for a special election.

Voter turnout in municipal elections across America is traditionally low compared to turnout in presidential races, which reached a four-decade high of 62 percent in 2008, the year President Barack Obama was elected to his first term.

Even in presidential races, voter turnout in America lags behind that of other developed countries across the world. In countries like Belgium, Sweden and South Korea, for example, at least three-quarters of eligible voters typically turn out to pick their country’s leaders.

Madonna said that growing frustration with America’s two major political parties could drive more and more of its voters to stay home.

“I think the relatively limited choices does have an affect,” Madonna said. “You do have a larger and larger pool of voters not interested in a party.”

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