While other row offices were eliminated, Luzerne County’s home rule charter kept the controller to independently scrutinize its $260 million in spending, 1,400-plus workers and more than 50 departments providing services from tax assessment to 911 dispatch.
The public — not county employees or officials — pick the person who fills this $64,999 elected post for the next four years to be the fiscal watchdog.
Although an estimated 256,800 residents are eligible to vote on this decision, the number who narrowed down the controller finalists from four to two in Tuesday’s primaries was 31,000 — only 12 percent of the over-18 population.
“When you break it down and see the percentage of the population making the decision, that’s pretty troublesome,” said Barry Kauffman, executive director of the nonprofit citizen advocate group Common Cause Pennsylvania.
Voter turnout in Luzerne County’s Democratic and Republican primaries was 19.79 percent — a record low, according to several past and present county officials.
It’s not only a problem here. Eight of the 11 other similarly sized, third-class Pennsylvania counties reported turnout lower than Luzerne’s on Tuesday.
Dauphin County, which had a heated Harrisburg mayoral battle, had a primary turnout mirroring Luzerne’s — 19.77 percent.
The only counties that reported higher turnout: Erie, 26.4 percent, and neighboring Lackawanna, 32.71 percent. Lackawanna had a ballot question on the proposed elimination of some row offices and a Scranton mayoral race.
The other primary turnout percentages: Lancaster, 7.7; Chester, 10.45; Lehigh, 14; Northampton, 14.48; Cumberland, 14.62; York, 16.87; Berks, 17; and Westmoreland, 18.81.
‘The price of apathy’
A quote from Plato sums up the danger of low voter turnout on Rock the Capital’s website: “The price of apathy is to be ruled by evil men.”
“I think most folks on a daily basis complain about the quality of government, yet when we ask them to come out two times a year to perform a civic duty, they’re MIA,” said Eric Epstein, coordinator of the Harrisburg-based, nonpartisan voter education organization.
This “citizen irresponsibility” has become part of modern culture, he said.
Busy schedules and the weather — too hot, too cold, too rainy — often are blamed, but these factors didn’t deter past generations of voters from exercising their civic duty, he said.
“It’s difficult to explain how people spend so much time and energy to excuse themselves from an election,” Epstein said.
He believes it largely boils down to apathy about government. “It’s largely driven by the perception that government is failing the citizenry,” he said.
Kauffman also sees a “rising degree of cynicism among the electorate,” a sentiment that all politicians are “crooks,” which might be heightened in this region due to the federal corruption probe that put several county judges and elected officials in prison.
A decrease in candidates running for municipal offices also is related to turnout, Kauffman said.
Luzerne County’s ballot was blank in some municipal supervisor, council and mayoral races Tuesday, while many others had no competition within a party. Five Democrats and six Republicans competed for five county council nominations on each ticket, which means Republican Alex Milanes was the only contender who won’t advance.
“A lot of people ask what’s the point if the person on the ballot is going to win anyway,” said Kauffman. “I think the parties need to do a much better job recruiting people for these positions.”
Low turnout is a “danger sign” for an elective representative democracy because nominees are chosen by the “diehard” voters from each party who show up at primaries, he said. “Democracy is not a spectator sport. It’s a participatory sport. We need voters to step up and do their part,” Kauffman said.
Epstein believes Pennsylvania should start following the example of states with “open” primaries that allow Independent and third-party voters to vote on the contenders, he said. Luzerne County has 19,612 voters who are not registered Democrat or Republican.
Some states allow registered independents to choose which primary they want to vote in — Democrat or Republican — while others permit all voters to cross registration lines.
Open primary supporters say all voters should have a say throughout the selection process, not only the general, because elections are funded by taxpayers. Critics say only people registered to that party should decide who runs under the party banner.
“Why should you have to belong to one of those two parties to vote in a primary? It’s silly,” Epstein said.
Some want commissioners
Luzerne County Democratic Party Chairman Bob Boyer said he wants to reach out to voters to find out why they stay away from the polls on election day.
Voting is easy and only takes a few minutes, he said. “Are they disgusted? Do they just figure someone else will pick for them?” Boyer said.
The chosen candidates make decisions that “affect lives,” he said.
“I understand many people feel betrayed because of the corruption probe, but they can’t pick up their toys and go home,” said Boyer. “They’re only hurting themselves.”
Mike Giamber, a Democratic county council nominee, said he believes many voters have lost the sense of empowerment that their selections can make a difference. People also aren’t convinced the county’s 2012 switch to home rule government is an improvement, he said.
“A lot of people feel it really doesn’t matter,” he said. “If we rearrange the chairs on the Titanic, it still goes down.”
Democratic council nominee Renee Ciaruffoli-Taffera said the elimination of several elected county row offices caused fewer people to vote. The register of wills and prothonotary would have been on the ballot this year in addition to the controller.
Ciaruffoli-Taffera said she’s met many voters calling for a return to the commissioner form of government, and she is trying to convince voters home rule government will improve with new people on council. Meanwhile, incumbents stress their experience and commitment to enact improvements that will take time.
While campaigning door-to-door, Republican county council contender Kathy Dobash said she met a voter who wasn’t planning to vote Tuesday, and she asked the reason. “This person really lost faith with all the scandals and mudslinging,” Dobash said.
“I thought because Tuesday was a nice day,” she said, “more people would come out.”