(Jennifer Kundrach/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

The race to select who will likely be the next Allegheny County executive, one of the most powerful political offices in southwestern Pennsylvania, could see higher turnout this year and buck the trend of low voter participation in off-year primary elections.

Democrats and Republicans will head to the ballot box May 16 to vote in this year’s partisan primary and select who they feel is best from their party to lead Pennsylvania’s second-largest county. And given the area’s Democratic tilt — the party’s candidates often win the county by 20 points or more in general elections — whoever wins the Democratic primary will likely take office next year.

A Union Progress analysis of voting turnout at the precinct level showed that, on average, just 23% of Democrats voted in the five odd-year primary elections between 2011 and 2019. That’s four points lower than the 27% turnout seen among Democrats in even-year primaries, which often feature higher-profile races. Figures are not publicly available for the 2020, 2021 or 2022 primaries.

The stakes are high in this year’s primary, given that the executive can play a major role in setting the county government’s agenda on issues such as air quality, property taxes and the county jail; proposes the county’s $1 billion budget; and fills seats on boards and commissions. The current county executive is Rich Fitzgerald, a term-limited Democrat who will complete his third and final term at the end of this year.

Six Democrats have entered the race thus far: County Councilor Liv Bennett; Dave Fawcett, an attorney and former county councilor; state Rep. Sara Innamorato; Pittsburgh City Controller Michael Lamb; Erin McClelland, a contracted project manager at the county human services department; and county Treasurer John Weinstein. No Republicans have announced bids for the county’s top job.

Changes over the past few years to voting rules, including expanded access to mail ballots, have opened the door for greater political participation. Democratic political consultant Ben Forstate said the fallout from these changes is still being felt and could disrupt what had once been a “pretty stable and steady electorate” seen in past primaries.

“You could tailor your campaign to just meeting those older voters, those very frequent voters,” he told the Union Progress. “Now, we have to make bigger guesses about who is going to turn out, and I think that forces elected officials to campaign and to include issues that would appeal to wider groups, wider segments of the Democratic party.”

Forstate added that he expects turnout to increase this year, driven in large part by voters of color and younger voters, meaning candidates can’t “continue to count on the same groups of voters turning out.”

“The electorate itself has become less homogeneous and less concentrated. It’s still probably whiter than in a midterm or presidential year. It’s still older, but it’s less so than it was in the past,” he said. “I think that’s reflected in the types of candidates that have been winning off-year primaries for Democrats.”

The Union Progress analysis summed votes for the last five off-year primary elections across 161 geographic areas — the 32 wards in the city of Pittsburgh, which each contain one or more neighborhoods, plus the other 129 municipalities in Allegheny County. It showed that the off-year Democratic primary vote, and Democratic voters themselves, have historically been very geographically concentrated — 16% of county municipalities and Pittsburgh wards account for half of all ballots cast and all registered Democrats.

Pittsburgh’s 14th Ward — encompassing Squirrel Hill, Regent Square, Swisshelm Park and Point Breeze — typically contributes the highest percentage of the total Democratic primary votes from across the county, at 5.5%. It has the second-highest average turnout rate among Democrats for off-year primaries of any city ward, with about 1 in 3 voters typically casting ballots.

Liz Healey, who chairs the 14th Ward Democratic Committee, said there’s been a longstanding high level of interest in politics that brings people to the polls there. She noted that the ward is home to not one but two ward-level Democratic organizations, the other being the nation’s oldest independent Democratic club.

“There’s a pretty high level among people of concern about good government, effective government and a concern for government that works for everybody,” she said.

Healey said the committee plans to hold night events to hear from candidates, as well as a Feb. 18 forum for county executive candidates that’s co-organized with Carnegie Mellon University students. She’s begun to hear from voters about their questions for the candidates and said learning more about their management experience often tops the list.

“The county executive is a management kind of role, not a legislative role. And so people want to know, from each of the candidates, ‘What experience do they have in managing what is a very large enterprise?’” she said. “It’s like mind-bending to try and think about managing all of those different kinds of responsibilities, and different teams of workers doing different things, and doing them all well.”

The 14th is one of several vote-rich wards in Pittsburgh’s East End, parts of which are highly affluent and together account for roughly 40% of the city’s registered Democrats but nearly half the city’s off-year primary vote.

Not all East End voters head to the polls at the same rate. On the other side of the East Busway from the 14th Ward, which has the city’s second-highest average turnout rate, is the 13th Ward — one of the wards with the lowest average turnout.

Leeann Younger, a North Side pastor who chairs the Pittsburgh Democratic Committee, said one of her goals is to bolster engagement from candidates and campaigns in areas where these drop-offs happen.

“I think the general understanding is that candidates and campaigns don’t engage in those neighborhoods because they presume there aren’t votes there. But if you spend time there, you realize that the votes drop off because people have felt historically excluded or disenfranchised or ignored,” she said. “And it really is going to take some work to recultivate hope in those situations, recultivating the reach and the power of the vote. It’s going to take a lot of work on behalf of the candidates … and the Democratic committee members.”

Younger added that she sees a key part of her role, which she took up only six months ago, as making sure ward leaders around the city are working as a team with “voter turnout as our highest goal.” She said the work to reach more voters is currently in the “fledgling seed stage.”

“It’s actually sitting at a roundtable with 10 people in a neighborhood, helping to describe the system and empowering folks to understand how they can make changes. And how their needs and the issues that are important to them can be impacted by their engagement in the process,” she said. “I think sometimes you have to go that small.”

Residents of the county’s 129 other municipalities also have a large say in the primary, with two-thirds of off-year primary ballots typically cast outside Pittsburgh. The first set of suburbs surrounding the city is a key area, led by Penn Hills, Mt. Lebanon and West Mifflin.

Democrats have made large gains in voter registration over the past few years, generally in more affluent suburbs and among disaffected Republicans, part of a larger trend of many communities across the country shifting toward the party during the Trump presidency.

Lara Putnam, a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh who has studied grassroots politics, said it is unclear how these newer Democrats will pick from among the candidates. Many voters fit what she described as a kind of “supervoter” who typically shows up for primary elections, and is both “used to making their voice heard in local politics and being heard in local politics.”

“There’d be reason to think, given the voting history of those places, that the Democratic primary electorate in those more comfortable suburbs might be more moderate in their ideological views,” she said. “But politics is complicated, and there isn’t just one dimension on which candidates are moderate or more progressive or more of a challenge to the status quo. I think anyone who thinks they know exactly how the increasingly blue suburbs are going to vote in the primary is probably wishcasting, rather than going off the basis of a lot of hard evidence.”

Putnam added that some areas where Democrats have made inroads are now heavily organized and include party committee structures rebuilt from the ground up with new leadership.

“The local committees … are now much more reflective of the potential Democratic electorates all around them, it’s less of an old boy’s club,” she said. “I think that means that those party committees are going to play an important role in connecting potential candidates to the networks of voters who they hope are going to support them in the primary.”

One such area is Franklin Park, a growing and diversifying suburb about 20 minutes north of Downtown Pittsburgh, where Democrats flipped a state House seat this past November.

Martin Karl co-chairs the borough’s Democratic committee, which had been dormant for some time but revived itself in 2017. He said the committee is organizing heavily around races for local offices, given what he described as an opportunity this fall to elect the first-ever Democratic majority on the borough council.

“Frankly, our local emphasis is on our local borough council and our local school board races,” said Karl, who himself is among the large wave of former Republicans who have switched their party registration to Democratic in recent years. “We’re less involved in and concerned about the county races. … The big local issues in Franklin Park revolve around preservation of green space and conservation, and stormwater management ”

Karl said the committee plans to alert voters about the upcoming primary election by knocking on doors, sending mailers and making personal phone contacts. He added that a competitive primary for county executive is “kind of new to people without long memories” and that the committee is organizing a Feb. 15 forum for North Hills residents that features county executive candidates.

“Frankly, nobody has had to pay any attention to this for the 12 years that Rich Fitzgerald has held the office,” he said.

Jon, a copy editor and reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is currently on strike and working as a co-editor of the Pittsburgh Union Progress. Reach him at jmoss@unionprogress.com.

Jon Moss

Jon, a copy editor and reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is currently on strike and working as a co-editor of the Pittsburgh Union Progress. Reach him at jmoss@unionprogress.com.