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Lebanon County prepared for large voter turnout

Written by John Latimer/Lebanon Daily News | Nov 7, 2016 2:55 PM
Lebanon_county_voting.jpg

Chief clerk Joellen Sohn and Voter Registration Office Director Michael Anderson file absentee ballots in their appropriate precinct in preparation for Tuesday's election. (Photo: John Latimer, Lebanon Daily News)

(Lebanon) -- While the outcome of Tuesday's presidential election is too tight to call, it's a safe bet that voter turnout will be high.

Presidential elections historically produce high turnouts including the last two which resulted in the highest percentage of Lebanon County voters casting ballots in recent memory.

In 2012, when Barack Obama defeated Arizona Senator John McCain, 72 percent of county voters came to the polls.

Four years later, when Obama was reelected over Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, the turnout was only slighting lower, with 70 percent of the county's registered voters casting ballots

Lebanon County's new director of the Voter Registration Office is predicting that Tuesday's turnout for the race between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton will set the bar even higher.

"I'm still leaning more toward 75 percent turnout this election," Michael Anderson said last Thursday.

Anderson, who took over the post in August, said he came to that conclusion after comparing data from the run up to the previous two elections, including absentee ballots, with current numbers.

In 2008, just over 3,000 absentee ballots were cast, which was a couple of hundred more than in 2012. Although this year's numbers indicate the absentee ballot totals will rival 2012, there's another factor that is pushing Anderson's turnout prediction higher.

"The reason why I think it is going to be a little bit higher than in 2008, honestly, is because I think there has been an effort by the Democratic Party to get the Hispanic vote registered and to the polls."

Lebanon County Democratic Committee Chairwoman Lois Herr verified Anderson's observations. Local volunteers working with paid and volunteer staff from Clinton's state and national campaign have been doing their best to get out the vote, especially in culturally-rich Lebanon, from a shared office at 608 Cumberland Street, she said.

"They've registered a lot of new voters and knocked on 11,000 doors and made 80,000 phone calls," she said. "They are out on the street every day in what is called a knock and drag effort, so I think 75 percent is not unreasonable."

The local Democratic party has been working hard the past several years to cultivate Latino voters with its "Hispanic Initiative" by hosting summer picnics and events like Sunday night's "Salsa the Vote" get-out-the-vote party in Lebanon -- but the results have not been evident on Election Day, admits Herr.

This year, largely because of the help the local party has received from Clinton's state campaign, called PA Victory, Herr is confident the outcome will be different.

"The PA Victory people have made a conscious effort to have bilingual people canvasing in the neighborhoods and making phone calls. We are getting smarter at how we do things, like having a bilingual phone system," she said. "Minor changes in the way we are approaching the community, I think helps. Plus the major effort by the ground troops."

The ground game will be the key to Clinton's victory in the state and nationwide, Herr believes.

"Trump doesn't have a ground game and the Clinton ground game is second to none," she said.

Herr's GOP counterpart, Lebanon County Republican Committee Chairman Casey Long, agrees that voter turnout will be huge, but he believes it will be to the benefit of Republicans, siting GOP gains in voter registration numbers.

"I have seen a lot of evidence, looking at the voter registration numbers, that in Lebanon County and across the state, by far, Republicans are out-gaining Democrats in registration numbers," he said.

Long's claim is supported by data released by the Pennsylvania Department of State after the voter registration sign-up deadline on Oct. 11.

Although Republicans still trail Democrats by more than 900,000 voters across the state, 638,200 new voters registered in the past year, most of them with the GOP. Republicans increased their rolls from a year ago by 318,585 - or almost 50 percent of the new voters - compared to 237,327 Democrats and 82,888 independent and third-party voters.

A look at the law and penalty for voter intimidation. Tina MacIntyre-Yee

Results in Lebanon County were similar, with a total of 7,883 new voters registering since the start of the year, raising the rolls to a total of 86,893. Of those, 4,084, or more than 50 percent, were Republicans; 2,458 were Democrats; and 1,341 registered as independent or with a third party.

Long uses anecdotal evidence to demonstrate Trump's popularity in the county and support his belief it will negate Clinton's ground game. Like the Democrats, he said, the local GOP party has been working closely with the Republican Committee of Pennsylvania and Trump's campaign to solidify his support.

"Hillary Clinton's campaign is spending a lot more money than the Donald Trump campaign. But if you look at the local effort and the enthusiasm, we given away 3,000 Trump-Pence signs. It something no one involved in the party has ever seen. Anyone driving through Lebanon County can see the Trump signs out number the Hillary signs by at least 25-to-1."

Herr has a couple of explanations for that.

"Well, they give away their signs, which is not much of an investment. We sell ours as a fundraiser and put everything back into the party," she said. "Second, our signs routinely disappear after we put them out."

Both party leaders are also focused on the local and state down ballot races. Especially the tight one between incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Toomey and Democrat Katie McGinty, a former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

Herr believes that McGinty will emerge victorious because she has aligned herself closely with Clinton and worked to identify Toomey with Trump.

"I think Katie McGinty will win the Senate seat, because the campaign has been so much of a joint effort, in a sense," she said.

The outcome could decide who controls the Senate, noted Long.

Sen. Toomey and McGinty are in a real dog fight. It's the most expensive U.S. Senator race in the history of the country, and polls show it's neck-and-neck. Republicans need to work hard to get Sen. Toomey back to Washington, because it could potentially sway the balance of the Senate for years to come."

With passions running high on both sides, and the predicted high turnout potentially resulting in long lines, Anderson said he has made preparations for disruptions at the polls. They include contacting the county's constables, as well as county Sheriff Bruce Klingler about having some deputies available to keep the peace if necessary.

"Part of their (constables) duty has always been keepers of the peace on election days," Anderson said. "We just wanted to make sure that we have a plan in place for worst case scenarios and have people there as keepers of the peace. I have complete faith in that we are all neighbors, we are all in this together here in Lebanon County and there won't be any issues on Election Day. But you also have to have a plan in place in case you need something."

Anderson also vowed that it will be a fair election, and bristles at the notion that there will be rampant voter fraud.

"It is unfortunate because there's a lot of hard work that a lot of people have put in to make sure this election is fair," he said. "And to hear comments when there are really no facts to back them up, honestly, it just offends you. It is hard to get around that."

The accusations have also added to an already heavy workload, Anderson said.

"It starts making other people question it," he said. "There have been so many times that we've had to explain things to people about how things work. They come in here fired up because they believe everything they hear, either from a candidate or from the media. And then we have to hear them, too. It slows down a very busy process.

"It's unfortunate,"  Anderson continued. "You wish it wouldn't happen. You wish that there would be more faith in the system."


This story is part of a partnership between WITF and the Lebanon Daily News.

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