Erie's Municipal General Elections Set for Nov. 2
What role will voter turnout play as key races see new faces?
When it comes to voter turnout in municipal elections, Erie falls in line with national trends. As the New York Times reports, on average, just 27 percent of local populations head to the polls when their local elections are on the ballot. In May's 2021 municipal primary elections, just shy of 30 percent of eligible voters in Erie County cast their ballots.
But when it comes to electing the chief executive of the nation, turnout more than doubles. Just a year earlier when Democratic nominee Joe Biden defeated President Donald Trump, the incumbent Republican, Erie, again, fell in line with national voter turnout averages.
Low voter turnout at municipal elections continues to be the study of foundations, media, and think tanks nationwide. Some argue that voters feel there's more at stake in electing presidents, senators, governors, and congressional representatives. Others argue that getting to the polls is too challenging. Myriad recommendations and solutions have been and continue to be proposed.
In Pennsylvania, PA Voter Reform Act 77, signed by Gov. Tom Wolf in 2019, opened up the voting process to no-excuse mail-in ballots. With just the 2020 elections and 2019's primary in the books, it's hard to say just yet that in Erie it's had a profound impact on driving up overall voter turnout.
The challenge of getting voters to the polls is not party-specific. Five months ago in Erie's primary elections, just shy of 34 percent of registered Democrats voted. For Republicans, it was nearly 32 percent.
The reason for low turnout this year won't be because a marquee local race isn't on the ballot. This year, Erie is in the process of determining who goes down in history as the county's seventh top executive.
Its sixth and current county executive, Kathy Dahlkemper, elected not to seek reelection despite being eligible for one more four-year term under the county's three-term limit policy. The former congresswoman, who defeated Democratic incumbent Barry Grossman in 2013 and later Republican Don Tucci in the general election, made history in 2017. Defeating Republican challenger Art Oligeri, she became just the second Erie County Executive in Erie's history to serve more than one term. The other, Democrat Judy Lynch, served five terms in an era pre-dating term limits.
Dr. Tyler Titus, a mental health professional and small-business owner, emerged from a pack of four contenders in the spring after a four-lead-change election night that spilled over into the next day as ballots were still being counted. Titus, who made history as a the first openly transgender person elected in Pennsylvania, is currently serving as President of the Erie School Board in their first term, and would again make history if elected, becoming the first openly transgender person to be elected county executive.
Brenton Davis, a military veteran and small-business owner, also looks to make history by doing what hasn't been done in 20 years: Win a bid for Erie County Executive as a Republican.
Since Richard Schenker, who served one term from 2002 to 2006, Democrats have held the seat. Of the six executives so far, just one other Republican has served — the first-ever County Executive elected, Russell Robison, who won office in 1977 after Erie County adopted its home-rule charter. Of the 11 terms served since Robison was inaugurated in 1978, Democrats have served nine and Republicans two.
The 2021 election marks Davis' second bid for county executive. Bested by Art Oligeri in 2017's primary, Davis defeated his sole 2021 primary challenger, first-time candidate Shawn Wroblewski, a paramedic with East Erie County Emergency Medical Services.
Wroblewski has endorsed Titus. But this hasn't been the only cross-party endorsement. Rita Bishop, who sought the 7th District county council seat in 2019 but lost to Republican Ellen Schauerman and finished last in the four-way Democratic contest in May, endorsed Davis.
Will these endorsements move the needle? It's hard to tell. Will potential future endorsements make a difference? That's also hard to tell, but it's worth watching.
In other races it may be harder to discern differences between candidates' demeanor, experience, and policy positions. The 2021 county executive candidates draw stark contrasts that stand to become more apparent as election day draws nearer.
Another thing to watch: Advertisements. Both candidates launched positively, featuring television ads promoting themselves and their campaigns. So far, only Davis has gone negative with a commercial he's approved that goes on the attack against Titus.
Titus has since responded on social media, posting that upon seeing their opponent's new negative ad, their 8-year-old son said: "Dad, this makes me want to cry. Can we have a commercial that says don't believe Brenton and follow your dreams, be yourself, and never give up?" To which Titus responds in the post: "Even better: we can have a whole campaign that says that."
There are plenty of other things to watch for before the election — additional debates (the first was toned down with both candidates staying calmly in their lanes), campaign finance reports (to see the impact of local and outside funding in a race drawing outside attention given Erie's continued bellwether status), coalition building within parties, across-the-aisle coalition building (since Pennsylvania remains a closed-primary state and support can only be manifested outside the ballot box in May), and more. And, there are plenty of other races worth watching.
With the ousting of Democrat John Morgan in his reelection bid in the primary, Millcreek will have a new face for Millcreek Township Supervisor after voters just bumped John Groh an election cycle prior. Too, there'll be a new sheriff in town. And both councils — the City of Erie and Erie County Council will be reconstituted anew with some incumbents not seeking reelection and others losing their primary bids.
And there's school boards. And there's … well, there's a lot that should motivate more than one-third of the 86,462 registered Democrats and 66,976 registered Republican voters to get to the polls to elect those who govern most closely to them.
To be clear, there are literally millions of additional reasons. In the county alone, there are 275 million reasons with 275 million dollar signs attached to them, as the forthcoming pandemic relief aid from the Biden administration's American Relief Plan will soon flow into the county where elected officials will oversee how these funds are injected throughout the region.
There's always a lot at stake when it comes to elections. But never before has there been so much hinging on a local election in modern history.
Will that be enough to drive voter participation in a municipal election to the same level as a presidential election? If not now, when, if ever?
Rather than garnering the attention of those eager to forecast who might win in 2022's midterms and 2024's presidential election, Erie could draw the eyes of a nation to be studied as a model where voters hold their local elections in the same regard — if not higher — than that of voting for presidents, senators, representatives, and governors. Perhaps it's time for Erie to buck the national trend and become a trendsetter. We stand to make history if we elect to do so.
Ben Speggen can be contacted at bSpeggen@ErieReader.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @BenSpeggen.