Pittsburgh mayor's race looks to be in the hands of only a few voters

Bob Bauder
| Tuesday, May 21, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Fewer than half of Pittsburgh's registered voters will cast ballots on Tuesday in an election that will virtually determine the next mayor, political observers predict.

Mark Wolosik, manager of the Allegheny County Elections Division, said he expects about 40 percent Democratic turnout in the city. Party officials think Wolosik is dreaming.

Nancy Mills, who chairs the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, and Jim Roddey, who chairs the Republican Committee, think turnout will be closer to 20 percent.

“I think 35,0000 votes will win the election,” Roddey said. “That means a little over 10 percent of the population (of 307,000) will select the mayor. It also means 90 percent of the people living in the city of Pittsburgh will get a mayor they didn't vote for.”

Campaigns for the leading Democratic mayoral candidates, City Councilman Bill Peduto and former state Auditor General Jack Wagner, said they would run telephone banks, go door-to-door and rent vans to get voters to polls. Both hoped for a high turnout.

“I think it's a pretty hotly contested race, and that will drive voter turnout,” Wolosik said.

In addition to Peduto, 48, of Point Breeze and Wagner, 65, of Beechview, state Rep. Jake Wheatley, 41, of the Hill District and community activist A.J. Richardson, 36, of Sheraden are seeking the Democratic nomination. Republican Josh Wander, 42, of Squirrel Hill is running unopposed for the Republicans' nod.

Pittsburgh residents shun primaries, even though they typically determine the next officeholder because of voter registration disparities. There are 164,741 registered Democrats in the city, compared with 30,502 Republicans. Pittsburgh has not had a Republican mayor since the Great Depression.

Only 26.6 percent of city Democrats turned out in 2009 for the last mayoral primary, down from 38.8 percent in 2005 and 39.6 percent in 2001.

Allegheny County totals are worse.

Last year's presidential primary drew 19.4 percent of 888,686 registered voters, and the county has averaged about 23 percent voter turnout in primaries over the last four election cycles.

The county will spend about $914,000 on this primary, not including staff salaries and warehouse rentals. If only 23 percent of 879,183 registered voters turn out, the cost will equate to about $4.50 per person.

Political observers have mixed opinions on whether higher turnout helps Peduto or Wagner, the two front-runners in recent polling.

Gerald Shuster, a University of Pittsburgh political analyst, said a large turnout among voters 50 and younger helps Peduto because he appeals to a younger demographic. More seniors voting would translate to more votes for Wagner, he said.

“This is the time of year when the weather keeps people away, strangely enough,” Shuster said. “It's not that it's snowy and cold; it's that it's so nice. People have things to do, and voting is the last of their priorities for the day.”

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

Other democracies, which tend to hold only one election per year, attract a larger percentage of voters, according to FairVote, a Maryland-based nonpartisan nonprofit, which seeks greater voter participation and fair representation in elections.

Turnout is 70 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.”

Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@tribweb.com.

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