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Large Lebanon County voter turnout predicted today

Written by John Latimer/Lebanon Daily News | Apr 26, 2016 7:40 AM
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(Lebanon) -- Get ready to wait in line if you plan on voting in today's Primary Election.

With races that could go a long way toward determining the presidential nominee in both the Republican and Democratic parties, voter turnout is expected to be high, according to Lebanon County's top election official.

"I'm going to say 60 percent," Lori Oliver, director of the Voter Registration Office, predicted on Thursday.

The county has 26,162 registered Democrats and 44,887 registered Republicans for a total of 71,049 major party voters. So, if Oliver's prediction is correct, it would mean 42,629 voters casting ballots at the county's 55 precincts, which is significantly higher than most primary elections. Like last year's municipal Primary Election when turnout was 18 percent.

The actual voter total may be even higher. Independent and third-party voters, who total 11,266, will also be able to vote on a pair of referendum questions. But because they cannot vote for candidates in the state's closed primary, Oliver's predicted voter turnout does not take their number into account.

This is the first presidential election since Oliver took over the post in 2013. She said she based her prediction on a variety of statistics, including the fact that more than 2,000 new voters have been added to the county's voter roll since November's election.

"I could be off," she said, "but based on (1,500) individuals that have applied for absentee ballots, the total registered voters and the absentees that have come back already, I think approximately 60 percent, which is a lot."

A high level of voter interest can also be inferred from the number of party affiliation switches.

Statewide, more than 165,000, or two percent of voters changed party affiliation, according to the Department of State.

In Lebanon County, that number is 1,541, which also is two percent of the county's total of 82,315 registered voters. Exactly 1,000 joined the Republican Party with 597 coming from the Democratic Party and the rest either moving from being independent or registered with a third party.

The high turnout prediction is also a product of the fact that neither party has selected its presidential nominee.

Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton is hoping that a strong showing in Pennsylvania and four other northeastern states on Tuesday will force Senator Bernie Sanders to drop out of the race. Recent polls - including the Franklin & Marshall College Poll which had her up by 58 to 31 percent - show Clinton with a comfortable lead over the Vermont senator.

On the GOP side, Donald Trump is also hoping for a resounding victory to put nails in the campaign coffins of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Several polls released in recent days showed Trump with a decisive double-digit lead with 40 percent or more of the vote, while Cruz and Kasich lingered in the mid-20 percent.

A high voter turnout in Pennsylvania's primary would be atypical from many previous presidential election years. Because Pennsylvania's primary comes late, often the parties' nominees have already been selected by the time the county's voters get to cast their ballots, resulting in a mediocre local turnout.

For instance, in 2008, when John McCain had already sewed up the GOP nomination, just 34 percent of the county's Republicans went to polls.

The number was higher for Democrats in 2008 because the race between Clinton and eventual nominee, Barack Obama, was still contested, although Obama had a decided edge. That year, 55 percent of the county's registered Democrats voted. The total turnout for both parties was 42 percent.

When Obama was running for reelection in 2012, a paltry 14 percent of registered Democrats bothered to vote locally. And with Mitt Romney already nominated by the time Pennsylvania's primary rolled around, 32 percent of the county's Republican voters cast ballot, producing a total turnout of 25 percent.

Lebanon County Republican Committee Chairman Casey Long is also expecting a high turnout both statewide and locally.

"I'm expecting a very large turnout because of the interest in both the presidential races, nationally. Also with two very heated state House races (the 101st and 102nd district) here in Lebanon County on the Republican side."

The committee did not endorse a candidate in the presidential race, but it did endorse three area men - Larry Stohler, Pat Kerwin and Christian Leinbach - running to be delegates at July's Republican Convention in Cleveland, Long said. Because the majority of Pennsylvania's delegates are not pledged to a candidate, they could play a pivotal role if no candidate reaches the magic 1,237 delegate number required to be the party's nominee.

Because differerent factions of the committee are supporting different candidates, Long said there will be no coordinated get-out-the-vote effort, but the party's headquarters at 21 S. Ninth St. in Lebanon will be open all day Tuesday.

"We will have the office staffed all day long for anyone in need of a ride to the polls, we'll be there to accommodate them," he said. "As far as a turnout operation, that's really not necessary. With interest in all these races, it is really up to the local candidates to do that."

On the Democratic side, there are no contested local races for state representative or U.S. Congress, but Lebanon County Democratic Committee Chairwoman Lois Herr said there is interest in a three-way race for the U.S. Senate between Joe Sestak, Katie McGinty and John Fetterman. She predicts Sestak will carry the vote in Lebanon County.

"Sestak has been in Lebanon, and the other two pretty well ignored it," she said. "He has base of supporters. He's been to many events that he didn't have to come to. That counts."

The excitement has been slow to build among local Democrats in the presidential election, Herr said, but it is starting to ramp up, now that the candidates are paying attention to Pennsylvania's voters.

"Over the weekend, things will really heat up with all the candidates around," she said on Friday. "I'm looking forward to a very exciting four days between now and Tuesday."

Members of the party leadership are divided over the candidates with some working hard for Sanders while others are making phone calls for Clinton, Herr said. As the party's leader, she must remain neutral. Although the fact that Herr was a Clinton delegate in 2008 gives a pretty good clue of where her loyalties lie.

"As chair of the committee, I can't be with either camp. Which is kind of tough because I like to be where the action is," she said.

Herr said she will roll up her sleeves and get to work campaigning once the nominee is selected. but she is not certain that will officially be determined on Tuesday.

"It could go all the way to California (primary on June 7)," she said.

Once the party has chosen it nominee, Herr is confident the party will put aside any differences and unite.

"We will all be together once it is over," she said.

*This article is part of a content-sharing partnership between WITF and the Lebanon Daily News.

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