Lily Vining | | Investigative Layout Assistant
On a rainy Tuesday, November 2nd, a small group of dedicated F&M Votes volunteers stood outside the Lancaster Theological Seminary polling station. Equipped with sample ballots, stickers, and a box of donuts, these dedicated volunteers were stationed to help students cast their ballots.
They received a slow but steady stream of students who found time between their classes and extracurricular activities to perform their civic duty, even without a highly contested election on the ballot— or so they thought.
On the ballot for this year were multiple judgeships, including those running for the state supreme and superior courts, school district directors, city council, and the mayorship. This last position held special importance to one person present outside of the polling station— Danene Sorace, the incumbent running for reelection.
Sorace, a Democrat, had previously served one term on the city council before running for mayor in 2017. She prides her administration on increasing efforts to replace grey infrastructure in the city with green, driven by her background in environmental conservation. The past two years, however, challenged the new mayor in ways that even the most seasoned politicians were ill-prepared to handle.
In an interview with Lancaster County News (LNP), Sorace noted that the obstacles of COVID-19 and racial injustice over the past two years have had profound impacts locally. Due to the setbacks, “we haven’t been able to fully realize some of the work that we had set out to do, and the work’s changed because of the pandemic, because of George Floyd, because of the needs that are in our community today.” However, she sees her next term as an opportunity to address other items on her agenda, like affordable housing, in addition to the ongoing needs for police reform and pandemic relief.
Sorace’s leadership through the pandemic and police reform protests did not go unnoticed by city residents, who entrusted her to another four years. Her sweeping victory of 73% to 27% over third-party candidate Willie Shell is just one of the numerous wins for Democrats in Lancaster City. Ismail Smith-Wade-El and Lochard Calixte joined incumbents Janet Diaz and Faith Craig to win seats on the city council.
In a city where registered Democrats outnumber all other voters roughly three to two, these results may not appear too surprising; however, in an off-year election, the reduced turnout can turn the tides dramatically, as seen in other parts of the country. Sorace emphasized the reliance on more local efforts taken to increase turnout, whether in person or via mail-in ballots. The population of Lancaster City is close to 60,000, yet in 2017 when Sorace won her first term as mayor, only 8,000 voters cast ballots. Voter turnout dropped by 1,000 this year, which she attributes to less attention paid to an incumbency campaign.
Candice Roper, Director of International Studies and Common Hour, and Cindy Wingenroth, volunteer with F&M Votes, offer further explanations for the lower turnout. They both recalled the 2020 election, where the line of students and Lancaster locals waiting to vote at the Lancaster Theological Seminary stretched to the parking lot by 7:00 am. In contrast to 2020, there was never a line of more than a few people for this off-year election. Despite efforts by F&M Votes to rally students to vote, Wingenroth admitted that student involvement, though steady, was “slow” this November. Student voting advocates expressed similar disappointment that their peers who registered to vote in the swing state for the national election did not turn out for this year. They recognize that reduced turnout is common in off-year elections. However, they hope that some of them opted for the mail-in method that many utilized in 2020.
With the uproar at school board meetings taking place across the country putting education in the spotlight, turnout to elect school directors is especially crucial. In this election, Lancaster voters chose Luis Morales, Mara Creswell McGrann, Jennifer V. Eaton, and David Parry as directors for the school district for four years, and Molly Henderson for two years. Though all Democrats, four of these candidates are cross-filed as both parties on the ballot. Roper, a former school director herself, explained that candidates can receive this identifier by earning enough signatures of support from both parties. Roper argued that the purpose of making their party affiliation unclear on the ballot was to guarantee their seat. Other candidates, like Republican Joanne Murphy running for Judge on the Court of Common Pleas, also ran under this vague identifier of their party affiliation, which can confuse and influence voters’ decisions. Roper and other volunteers with F&M Votes tried to clear up these confusions with a ballot “cheat sheet” at their table outside of the polling station, where they explained this to student voters. One student, Sarah Nicell ‘24, stated that they did not know that candidates could cross-file. “I’m a Government major,” Nicell expressed, “but I never learned this in my classes before.”
Another critical decision on the ballot this year was the vote on whether to retain five judges to varying levels of the Pennsylvania court system. While many voters do not give a second thought to this decision, it carries immense weight in an increasingly polarized state and country. Local judges are far more important than many believe, as countless legislative issues including gerrymandering reach the Pennsylvania state courts every year. Furthermore, the ballot does not include a critical fact about these judges— they are all Republicans. By checking “yes” to retain these judges, most do not know the full implications of their vote.
Reduced voter turnout in an off-year election is far from a new phenomenon; however, given the current tense and polarized political climate, new and seasoned voters alike must recognize the gravity of performing their civic duties. For the four years that we are students at F&M, we are also members of the Lancaster community. It is our responsibility to bring the same vigor of 2020 to the smaller, but just as important, local elections.
2021 Lancaster City Election Results:
Mayor: Danene Sorace, Democrat
City Council: Ismail Smith-Wade-El, Democrat; Lochard Calixte, Democrat; Janet Diaz, Democrat; Faith Craig, Democrat
Director of Lancaster City School District, 4 years: Luis Morales, Democrat; Mara Creswell McGrann, Democrat; Jennifer V. Eaton, Democrat; David Parry, Democrat
Director of Lancaster City School District, 2 years: Molly Henderson, Democrat
Justice of Supreme Court PA: Kevin Brobson, Republican
Judge of the Superior Court PA: Megan Sullivan, Republican