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Nearly one-fourth of all registered voters turned out for Pennsylvania’s primary election Tuesday.

On its face, that’s hardly a register of civic participation to brag about.

But taken in the context of the political cycle, it’s really quite good. Sparked by post-pandemic interest in the ballot questions pertaining to the powers of the state legislature during a disaster declaration and, of course, the beginning of the second-year of no-excuse mail-in balloting, turnout actually soared past the usual so-called off-year rates.

And it happened in all kinds of counties.

In Dauphin County, where there was lots of interest in a spirited Democratic primary for mayor of Harrisburg, countywide turnout hit 28.5 percent. In the city itself, the number of votes cast didn’t quite match 2009 or 2013, when the mayoral races were headlined by former mayors Stephen R. Reed and Linda Thompson, respectively, but the number of ballots casts jumped by 13.3 percent from 2017.

In Allegheny County, 28.7% of voters cast ballots. In the marquee race, state Rep. Ed Gainey upset Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto in the Democratic primary. Turnout was 17.3 percent in 2017.

In Cumberland County, a Republican majority county in south central Pennsylvania where the only county-wide race of note was an open judgeship, overall turnout hit 29%. For some local context, turnout among eligible voters in the last four off-year primary elections had ranged from 14.6 % to 18.6 %.

In Erie County, in the far northwestern corner of the state, where there was a lot of interest in the local county executive race, turnout for both major parties was above 30% and the overall participation rate came in at 29.1%.

“Oh my gosh. For a primary in an off-year election – 30% is what the dreams of (national) mid-term primaries are made of. I mean, that’s like, incredibly high,” said Alison Dagnes, a political science professor at Shippensburg University.

Even in Philadelphia, which lagged most of the rest of the state at 20.1% through Friday afternoon, turnout was well above past standards for a non-mayoral, off-year primary. From 2005 through 2017, Philly’s turnout ranged from a low of 9% to a high of 17%. District Attorney Larry Krasner’s successful primary battle led the races in the city.

“The turnout that we just had was the biggest turnout in the last 20 to 30 years” for this election cycle, said City Commissioner Al Schmidt, adding that by the time all mail-in ballots are tabulated the turnout rate should exceed 21%.

So what moved us? (Or at least one-fourth of us?)

Political analysts cite a number of things, including:

  • The constitutional amendments that served, for many, as a proxy vote for what they felt about the pandemic and Gov. Tom Wolf’s handling of it.
  • The return of mail-in balloting. This year, hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians have declared themselves permanently interested in voting by mail. Applications for this spring’s ballots may have put the election in their mind in a way that never happened before in off-year elections.
  • A renewed appreciation of the sanctity of the vote. Whether you’re a Trump Republican worried about elections being rigged, or a Black voter worried about attacks on voting rights, or someone in the middle just jolted by the events of the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, a lot of people may have a newfound appreciation for the value of their franchise.

“From the right and from the left, it’s interesting that you have one universe of people talking about voter suppression, and another universe of people talking about voter fraud,” Schmidt said. But whether you’re someone worried about potentially being kept from voting, or you’re someone who’s worried about somebody else trying to steal an election, that can drive turnout too.

Statewide numbers were not available Friday, though from the race with the highest vote count, it’s clear that overall voter turnout had ticked above 24% by 5 p.m. Friday.

So job kinda well done, voters.

The next question is, can this continue?

Sarah Niebler, a political science professor at Dickinson College, thinks it can at least for the short-term.

“Everybody hates political polarization, right? They think it’s terrible for democracy. Nobody can talk to each other. Things are uncivil,” Niebler said. “But one thing political science has shown is that when politics are polarized, people do participate more because they realize and they see that the stakes are higher.

“So as the parties move farther and farther away from each other, the choice between the two becomes much more stark, and that does have a motivating effect on people’s proclivity to participate.”

Dagnes agrees.

Coming out of 2020, she said, there’s a voter base in both parties right now “who are very excited just to continue the fight, because that’s what it’s about. It’s about, ‘The Fight.’”

To Dagnes, that was personified this spring in Pennsylvania by the Constitutional amendment on emergency powers. Some voters who might never otherwise care about an amendment to the state constitution found a direct outlet for their “Re-Open Pennsylvania” rage in this primary.

“It doesn’t matter who they’re fighting, because they know who they’re fighting. They’re fighting the other guy. That other guy is a whole bunch of different guys, but it’s the other guy,” Dagnes said. “That’s what we have now.”

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