This story was originally published by PublicSource, a news partner of NEXTpittsburgh. PublicSource is a nonprofit media organization delivering local journalism at publicsource.org. You can sign up for their newsletters at publicsource.org/
The issues that loom over Pennsylvania’s upcoming elections are monumental. The next governor will have sway over state laws on abortion, voting and labor. The next U.S. senator could decide partisan control of Congress. But the late stages of the campaign take place largely on the lowest level: Door-knockers, phone bankers and organizers try to squeeze as many votes as possible out of their political base.
As the old political saying goes: It all comes down to turnout.
In Allegheny County, voter turnout trends mirror the disparities and inequalities present in the region. Municipalities that have whiter populations tend to have higher voter turnout, and municipalities with lower median household income tend to have lower turnout. Some of the most marginalized and challenged communities in Southwestern Pennsylvania make the least noise at the ballot box.
In 2018, the most recent midterm election, McKees Rocks had the lowest voter turnout in Allegheny County: 39% of its registered voters turned out that year, compared to 58% across the county. Its population is 41% Black, while the county is 14% Black. Its median household income — $31,130 — is less than half the county’s.
McKees Rocks Mayor David Flick said people in lower-income communities are less likely to have free time and energy to be civically engaged, which leads to lower turnout.
“If you’re living week to week, if you’re living check to check, you don’t get to spend an awful lot of time navel gazing,” Flick said. “If you’re going to be a legitimately informed voter … that requires a lot of time and due diligence.”
At the high end of 2018 turnout, at 77%, was tiny Ben Avon Heights, just northwest of the city, where 97% of 400 residents are white and the median household income is triple that of the county. All of the county’s wealthiest enclaves had above-average turnout, while the poorest ones — headlined by shrinking rivertowns Braddock, Rankin, Homestead and McKeesport — each had turnout below 45%.
Allegheny County’s turnout patterns are also largely correlated with race. The eight majority-minority municipalities each had below average turnout in 2018, with only one (Wilkinsburg) cracking 50%. The 10 lowest-turnout municipalities that year were home to 4% of the county’s overall population, but 14% of its Black population.
Lack of progress and low information feeds low turnout
Leaders of local activist groups and municipal governments told PublicSource they think turnout is down in these areas because marginalized people are not seeing tangible results when they vote.
“Affluent people, most white middle-class folks, they see how their vote gets them what they want and helps their quality of life be better,” said local activist Brandi Fisher at an October rally in the Hill District aimed at getting low-income people to turn out in November. “Poor and Black and Brown people don’t see that.”
On the other hand, she pointed to recent presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, who she said won elections in 2008 and 2016, respectively, because they convinced groups of infrequent voters that their votes could actually spur change.
Tim Stevens, leader of the Black Political Empowerment Project, said in an interview after the Hill District rally that people who lack basic services like health care or adequate food and housing “could very easily feel that nobody’s paying attention, and you could feel that you have no power in the matter.”
Dominique Davis-Sanders, the council president in Braddock, said the way people have been treated by police during protests may have discouraged them from political participation. “A lot of people thought, you know what, I’m tired of voting if it doesn’t matter,” he said. “Sometimes you just feel defeated and want to give up.”
Duquesne Mayor R. Scott Adams said a shortage of local journalism could be depressing turnout, with voters having fewer places to look for information. Newspapers like the McKeesport Daily News have closed, while others have reduced print days.
“A lot of times that information doesn’t get out because a lot of the older population here relied on the local paper for their news,” Adams said. “The older people really loved their local newspaper. … I think that means a lot to how the information isn’t getting out.”
Creating ‘generational voters’ in Pittsburgh
Community leaders said the key to increasing turnout lies at the grassroots level, not in a silver bullet policy fix (though they have some policy suggestions, too).
Maryn Formley, who leads Pittsburgh’s Voter Empowerment Education & Enrichment Movement [VEEEM], said her goal is to create “generational voters” — people who count voting as a family or community tradition.
“I always voted because my mom always voted,” Formley said. “For a while I voted because I was supposed to, but then in 2008 I felt there was some impact there. VEEEM was started to get that information to people that their vote can have impact.”
Formley said her group primarily works in northeast Pittsburgh, in Homewood and East Hills. The neighborhoods had below-average turnout in 2018, but Formley said she feels there has been progress since VEEEM’s founding in the 2017.
Wilkinsburg Mayor Dontae Comans said the age-old act of door-to-door canvassing is critical to raising turnout in marginalized communities.
“In a lot of boroughs, candidates don’t really get out there and knock doors and talk to everyone in the community, so a lot of people feel left out and feel like they don’t have a voice,” Comans said.
Formley called for the county to revive its 2020 initiative of creating satellite voting locations at which voters cast ballots before Election Day near their homes. She said they benefited people who have issues with mobility or have time constraints on Election Day.
County Councilwoman Bethany Hallam has lobbied election officials to bring back the satellite voting centers, which haven’t been used since the 2020 presidential election. But the officials, with the backing of County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, said their cost was not justified by the relatively low number of votes cast at the locations.
Ultimately, the perceptions of democracy’s responsiveness may have the most influence on voter participation. The people who do turn out, Comans said, “they’re the ones that make all the decisions.”
Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @chwolfson.
Ladimir Garcia is a PublicSource editorial intern. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Amelia Winger contributed.
This story was fact-checked by Terryaun Bell.