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Primary outcomes likely to rest in the hands of the few

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Tuesday, May 21, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Westmoreland County taxpayers could pay nearly $21 for every vote cast in Tuesday's primary if a prediction that only one in five registered voters will go to the polls is correct.

Voter turnout is expected to be as low as 20 percent as county Republicans and Democrats cast ballots to nominate candidates for county judge, row officers, mayors, local councils, township supervisors and school directors, according to county Elections Bureau Director Jim Montini.

Montini said his office expects to spend about $550,000 to stage the primary.

“This year will be the same as always. These elections (primaries) are the lowest turnout,” Montini said.

Four years ago, only 25 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the municipal primary, according to county records.

There are 122,303 registered Democrats and 90,833 Republicans eligible to vote in the county, Montini said.

The reasons for low interest in these elections varies, depending on which expert is speaking.

Voter apathy, unfamiliarity with multiple candidates in a municipal election and feelings that all politicians are corrupt hinder voting in primaries, political observers said.

Other democracies, many of which hold only one election per year, have much higher turnout rates, according to FairVote, a Maryland-based nonpartisan nonprofit, which seeks greater voter participation and fair representation in elections.

Turnout is 70 percent to 75 percent in Canada and more than 80 percent in most other democracies, according to the organization.

“We ask people to vote a lot more often than other countries,” said Executive Director Rob Richie. “We don't have the mix of parties out there that can be sort of galvanizing to people. Other countries have more parties. That's often sort of a key factor. There's just more people actively engaged in that on an institutional basis.”

In Westmoreland County, only a small percentage of candidates on the ballot have challengers for their party's nominations.

At the top of the ticket is the race for Common Pleas Court judge, where three candidates are vying for one Democratic and one Republican nomination.

Attorneys William McCabe, 57, of North Huntingdon; Meagan Bilik DeFazio, 38, of North Huntingdon; and Harry Smail Jr., 47, of Hempfield are running in both primaries.

Smail and Bilik DeFazio are making their second attempts to win a seat on the county bench. Both were defeated in the last judicial race in 2009.

McCabe is making his first bid for judge.

The lawyers are seeking to replace Judge John Driscoll, who was forced to retire when he turned 70 last year. Driscoll is among a group of Common Pleas Court judges who are challenging the state's mandatory retirement age.

In the only other countywide contested primary, Republicans Mike Powers, 25, of New Stanton and Carl Stepanovich, 69, of Murrysville are seeking the GOP nomination for prothonotary.

The primary winner will face first-term Democratic incumbent Christina O'Brien in the fall election. O'Brien is unopposed on Tuesday.

Other incumbents in top county offices — District Attorney John Peck, a Democrat; Coroner Ken Bacha, a Democrat; and Clerk of Courts Bryan Kline, a Republican — have no opposition in the primary.

Democrat Dan Blissman is unopposed in his party's primary for clerk of courts, while Republican Peter Borghetti is unchallenged for the GOP nomination for district attorney. Christopher O'Leath has no opposition in the Republican primary for coroner.

The polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. today.

Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or

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