GOP cushions its voter registration edge in York County

Jason Addy

The Republican Party has something of a stronghold in York County, and the party continued to widen its voter gap over Democrats after President Donald Trump’s election in November.

Heading into the May 16 primaries, 148,190 Yorkers are registered and eligible to cast ballots in the Republican primary, while 102,333 people are registered to vote in the Democratic primary, according to Pennsylvania Department of State voter registration statistics.

Republicans have opened up a nearly 46,000-voter gap on Democrats in York County and hold voter advantages in most of the county’s municipalities, though York City remains an oasis for Democratic candidates.

Corey Hanson looks over the ballot while voting at Kistler Elementary School Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016, in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. (Mark Moran/The Citizens' Voice via AP)

Since the April 2016 primary, Democrats have gained more than 3,000 registered voters, but the party has 203 fewer registered voters than it did on Nov. 8 for the presidential election. Republicans have added more than 10,000 voters to their registration rolls since April 2016, including 738 since Trump's election, according to state statistics.

More than 530 people have registered with other parties or as non-affiliated voters since Nov. 8, the statistics show.

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Since the start of 2016, 4,437 Democrats have re-registered as Republicans, while 1,810 Republicans have become Democrats, according to state statistics.

The stats also show that twice as many Democrats have become Republicans than Republicans have turned Democrats since Jan. 1 — 583 to 292, respectively.

Bob Kefauver, former chairman of the Democratic Party of York County, said the levels of voters switching parties "are nothing out of the ordinary" compared to what occurs in most municipal election years.

In this file photo, outgoing Chairman Bob Kefauver addresses committee members before the Democratic Party of York County elects a new chairman during a special election, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015.

Voters in York County often switch registrations to the Republican Party in order to vote in more competitive primaries, Kefauver said, such as the district attorney's race this year, which features two Republicans facing off and no Democrats running for their party's nomination.

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Registrations 'on trend': Alex Shorb, chairman of the York County Republican Committee, had a short-and-simple answer for the party’s recent gains and successes in the county: “Donald Trump.”

Still, Shorb said he is not expecting the Trump effect to translate into much of an increase in voter turnout or enthusiasm for the upcoming primary.

In this March 20, 2017 photo, President Donald Trump awaits the arrival of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi at the White House in Washington. Trump campaigned as an outsider, celebrating his lack of political experience by selling himself as a dealmaker willing to buck Republican orthodoxy and his own party's leadership. He alone would reshape Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Enthusiasm is always centered on presidential election years, with media attention creating a buzz around national races, Shorb said.

But “the air is kind of out of the balloon right now,” Shorb said.

Though Trump’s election to the nation’s top executive office sparked protests and demonstrations from Democrats and others across the country, Nikki Suchanic, York County’s director of voting and elections, said she also doesn’t expect to see a “dramatic increase” in voter turnout in the May 16 primary.

The influx of people coming to the county voting and elections office over the last few months has been “on trend with what we see in odd-year elections,” Suchanic said.

Alex Shorb

Odd-year elections, such as the May 16 primary and Nov. 7 general election, feature municipal and countywide elections and do not include the top-of-the-ticket presidential and congressional races that draw people to the polls.

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Suchanic said she is expecting low voter turnout rates around 20 percent in the May primary, though some areas might have higher turnouts because of referendum questions or heightened interest in mayoral and borough council campaigns.

'Energy and anger': Beth Melena, communications director for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, said her organization is working a statewide, 67-county strategy to "harness the energy and anger" of Democratic voters and others who don't agree with Trump's policies.

The organization wants to use that energy and anger to propel its "incredible list of candidates" for statewide races to victory, Melena said, and organizers are hoping the excitement for Democratic statewide judicial candidates will translate to victories on a more local level.

Melena said the 2016 presidential election has "made people tune into politics," both on the national level and the local level. Trump's election "fired people up to take a look at what's going on in their local communities," and what their congressmen, state representatives and school boards are doing, Melena said, pointing to the numerous rallies held by frustrated citizens since January.

"The more that people are out talking with each other, organizing — I think that's the key to making sure people are clued in and looking at how they're going to effect change in their own communities," Melena said.

Dearth of Democrats: Shorb said the York County Republican Committee will use the May 16 Republican primary to measure how the party’s voters are reacting to governmental affairs at the national level.

A low turnout could indicate Republican voters are taking a “wait-and-see approach” and giving new legislators and the new president time to push through some of their initiatives, Shorb said.

A higher turnout than expected could show Republican voters are “frustrated” by slow-moving initiatives and expected swift action with their party now in control of the legislative and executive branches, Shorb said.

While he’s not expecting a significant increase in Republican voter turnout in the primary, Shorb said he doesn’t expect the backlash against Trump’s election to drive Democratic voter turnout in the county any higher either.

Too soon to see Trump effect: Terry Madonna, professor and director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College, agreed there will be a “substantially lower turnout” for the May 16 primary than for the 2016 presidential election, in which more than 70 percent of registered voters in York County turned up at the polls.

But “given all the activity that we see all over the place with the Trump and anti-Trump forces,” Madonna said, there is a chance the president pushes more people to vote in an off-year municipal primary.

In this file photo, director of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll and Professor of Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College Dr. G. Terry Madonna leads a political discussion, 2016: Presidential Politics in the Nation and State, at Yorktowne Hotel in York City, Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016.

“I don’t think you can rule out that you could get some higher turnouts in some places because of the fact that you have so many voters still wound up,” Madonna said.

Pennsylvania is a closed-primary state, meaning registered Republicans can only vote in the Republican primary and registered Democrats can only vote in the Democratic primary. Because of that, Madonna said, any Trump effect might not be seen until November’s general election.

“I just don’t see a huge uptick in the primaries when Democrats are just picking Democrats and Republicans are doing the same,” Madonna said.