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November 03, 2015

Low turnout contests expected to preserve status quo

Montgomery County DA contest could be exception

Election 2015 Contests
Jim Kenney casts vote for mayor Brian Hickey/PhillyVoice

Jim Kenney, the Democratic candidate for mayor, stands behind the curtain of a voting machine at his polling place inside Old First Reform Church, Third and Race streets.

Melissa Murray Bailey, the Republican mayoral candidate, travelled throughout Philadelphia Tuesday, meeting with voters at varying polling places — and even taking a few selfies.

"I think people are excited that a candidate is coming and saying hello," Bailey said. "We're hitting a lot of polling places. A lot of these places haven't had any candidates come through. People are excited about that."

Yet, Bailey encountered low turnout at many of the polling places she visited, despite sunny skies and warm weather across the region.

"I'm not really sure what the reasoning is behind that," Bailey said. "They're disappointed that the turnout has been so low. There's no excuse." 

Election contests with predictable outcomes could be playing a factor.

“We may be looking at a record-low turnout,” political science and law professor Brigid Harrison said early Tuesday.

“I think we’ll be lucky to top 30 percent” voter turnout, added the Montclair State University professor.

An expected low turnout by voters sums up area political contests, all but perhaps the Montgomery County District Attorney contest, with its subtext of Bill Cosby and Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane fueling the only real fire in the region.

The DA contest has become something of a “proxy contest” between the Republicans and Democrats, said Joseph R. Marbach, the president of Georgian Court University in Lakewood, N.J., and a former provost and professor of political science at La Salle University.

The DA race features former Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce L. Castor Jr., the Republican running for the post once again. Castor, now a county commissioner, investigated Cosby for an incident that allegedly happened in the county a decade ago but did not bring a case against the comedian. Castor is now a county commissioner.

Opposing him is current First Assistant District Attorney Kevin Steele, the Democrat who has shouldered much of the case against Kane, a fellow Democrat accused of leaking secret grand jury information and then lying to cover it up.

Carrying through on the Kane case would fall to the winner of the race. And the statute of limitations on reconsidering the Cosby sexual assault allegations and bringing charges expires early next year.

Marbach said while Montgomery County is Republican-oriented, voters tend to be more independent, and the contest could serve as a predictive bellwether for the 2016 presidential contest.

“It is usually a low-attention contest, but there has been uncharacteristic spending and television ads here,” said Marbach, which could push voter numbers up.

He does not expect an upset in Philadelphia, where the mayoral and council races clearly favor Democrats due to a 7-to-1 registration advantage, though two council seats are set aside for candidates who are not Democrats.

He called Bailey “a sacrificial lamb” and “an unknown even within her party.”

He added she was outspent by her opponent, Jim Kenney, and will be outperformed in the get-out-the-vote effort by the Democratic machine.

“It is just too daunting,” he said.

Harrison said with few exceptions, such as in economically distressed Atlantic County, the 80 New Jersey assembly races are quiet contests with predictable outcomes, even though every member of the assembly is up for re-election.

The respected Rutgers-Eagleton poll recently found that 75 percent of Jersey voters have no idea the entire assembly is up for re-election, even though they top the ticket, said Harrison. The last time the assembly led tickets throughout the state was 1999, she said.

She also thinks the GOP presidential contest has sucked the oxygen out of local races for many voters.

Marbach said there is one dirty little secret to bye-year elections with no major contests to draw casual voters: Incumbent parties and candidates favor this sort of contest, which “preserves the status quo.”

Staff writer John Kopp contributed to this report.