Officials Decry Low Voter Turnout

Posted: October 30, 1988

When Buck Scott looks at Montgomery County, he sees the most affluent, best-educated county in the state, if not the nation.

Which is why he calls voter turnout figures "outrageous."

In the November 1984 election, which featured the Ronald Reagan-Walter Mondale presidential race, 82.27 percent of the registered voters in Montgomery County cast ballots, according to election figures at the Board of Elections in Norristown.

That percentage was above the state average of 78.2 percent and far above the national average of 59.9 percent. Yet, in the seven elections since, an

average of only 34.38 percent of Montgomery County voters cast ballots.

Bucks County showed similar statistics. In the November 1984 election, 79.70 percent of the registered voters cast ballots, according to election figures at the Board of Elections in Doylestown. But the county average for the seven elections through the April 26 primary was 36.23 percent.

Those statistics trouble Scott, chairman of the Democratic Party in Montgomery County. They also concern Paul B. Bartle, a Republican who is chairman of the Montgomery County Commissioners.

"I wish everybody would register to vote and exercise their franchise consistently and without fail," Bartle said.

But Frederick L. Voigt, executive secretary of the Committee of 70, a nonprofit, Philadelphia-based citizens' watchdog group, sees it a different way.

"Think, if you will, what comes after presidential elections in the normal four-year election cycle," Voigt said. "Next year is (Philadelphia's) district attorney and maybe some judges. So, how many people care who the D.A. is? . . .

"What's the most important thing of all? What gets the most attention and focus and interest?" Voigt asked. "The answer is: the presidency of the United States. And when it comes to comparing the district attorney of Montgomery County, and the relative importance of that office, compared to the presidency of the United States, well . . ."

Statistics back up Voigt's contentions. As the area excels in voter turnout and registration in presidential election years, it falls back into line with the rest of the nation in off-year and primary elections.

Bartle equated that with the heavy media coverage during presidential election years.

However, he said it was important not to downplay the importance of the local vote.

"It's very important who the leader of this country is," Bartle said, ''although I also think it's very important to know who your local township commissioners are because they provide a very significant service as well."

In the May 1985 primary election, only 16.23 percent of the registered voters in the county cast ballots. The poorest showing was turned in by Lower Moreland Township, where only 8.69 percent of the registered voters cast ballots. Whitemarsh Township, at 9.04 percent, also had a poor turnout.

At the top of the heap was Bryn Athyn Borough, where 28.30 percent of the registered voters cast ballots. In fact, Bryn Athyn has had a voter turnout above the county average in all eight of the elections dating back to November 1984.

By contrast, Upper Moreland Township has been above the county average only once since November 1984. In western Bucks County, Warminster Township was in the same shape as Upper Moreland, only once having a voter turnout above the Bucks County average.

Lower Moreland and Whitpain have been above the county average twice in the last four years.

"We always beat ourselves up as a people by saying, 'Oh, this is a terrible thing, people are not participating in the process,' when, in fact, people do participate in the process," Voigt said. "Focusing on this region, when you start comparing us to other western democracies, remember that they (other democracies) don't ask you to vote, for the most part, twice a year."

Voigt added, however, that national figures for voter turnout continue to decline.

In the April primary, only 41.29 of Montgomery County and 36.31 percent of Bucks County registered voters cast ballots. In the Nov. 4, 1986, general election, when there was a gubernatorial race, 60.12 percent of Montgomery County and 56.63 percent of Bucks County voters went to the polls. In that election, Abington, Cheltenham, Bryn Athyn, Springfield and Upper Southampton all had turnouts above 64 percent.

In Lower Merion, the largest municipality in the county, voter turnout has ranged from 12.19 percent to 82.81 percent. In five of the last eight elections, the percentage of voters has been above the county average. Abington Township, the second-largest muncipality, has been above and below the county average four times each.

In the November 1984 election, only two municipalities, Ambler and Conshohocken, had a voter turnout below 80 percent. And that was a record year in Montgomery County for voter registration.

Steven Petkov, a political science professor at Penn State's Ogontz campus, said the presidential election has a "psychology that draws in people."

He added that turnout figures seem almost backward. People are taught that local government is where individuals can have the greatest impact, yet local and off-year elections have the lowest turnouts, he said.

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