General Elections are Here: How to Make an Informed Vote
By Cassie Maz
Local elections are Tuesday November 5, and polling locations will be open from 7 AM to 8 PM. In Allegheny County, voting results will determine whether DA incumbent Stephen Zappala will retain his position, or if Lisa Middleman will become the first new Allegheny County District Attorney in 22 years.
Unlike 2016, no presidential candidate is on the ballot tomorrow. Historically, general elections have seen lower turnouts when a federal candidate is not on the ballot. For instance, 2016 saw a 71.39% turnout in Allegheny county, while 2018 only saw a 57.96% turnout, despite there being a higher number of registered voters in 2018. Yet in local elections, according to Pitt student Stephanie Gagne, “one vote can truly make all the difference.”
Exposure to the candidates involved lets you know what difference your vote is making. So when candidates aren’t accessible, it can be hard to make an informed decision. At a candidates forum in the WPU earlier this semester, only two of the eleven candidates invited showed up. Pitt Republicans organized a Q&A at Nordy’s Place last Wednesday with DA Stephen Zappala, who did not attend the previous forum. Several students, including Stephanie, saw the Q&A as a rare opportunity, hoping to get answers to serious concerns about Zappala’s stances.
“I went to the Zappala Q&A event because he has been avoiding candidate debates,” Stephanie explained. “I wanted the chance to ask him questions about his record as well as some of his more controversial decisions.”
When asked why she attended, political science and psychology major Sydney Massenberg said, “ He does not attend many public forums where he is at the will of the audience…We figured that the DA would be expecting to be asked easier questions, and knew that this would be a good opportunity to interface with him and try and get some answers.”
Mary Roche, a senior political science major, first found out about the event through Pitt Democrats. “I was looking forward to going, as I had done a lot of independent research on both Zappala and his challenger, Lisa Middleman,” she recalls. “I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to ask questions to Zappala about decisions he has made in office.”
One of these decisions includes how his office handled the homicide of Codi Joyce, which took place in 2014 but as of yet has no suspect arrests despite witnesses being present. “A television show, Breaking Homicide, even dedicated an episode to the case because of how outrageously it was handled by the DA’s office,” Stephanie added. “I mentioned the show to Zappala and stated that it might be worth looking into, but he told me that all the media wants is to make money.”
Students also asked the DA about racial disparities in Allegheny county, including how cash bail disproportionately impacts black communities, and a higher number of police officers are assigned to black neighborhoods. According to attendees, Zappala deflected. “He was shocked that the question seemed to suggest that something discriminatory was being carried out by the police force under his leadership,” Sydney recalled. “It was shocking to see the DA demonstrate how out of touch he is with the issues plaguing the county he presides over.”
Molly Gonzales, a polisci and gender studies student who works for the Middleman campaign and attended to ask difficult questions, was disappointed by the DA’s dismissal of important issues. “With so few opportunities to actually hear his take on key issues in criminal justice, I was eager to not only ask questions, but listen to his perception of prisons and criminal justice in the county.” Molly asked Zappala about his policy on cash bail. Zappala stated that he doesn’t have the power to end cash bail, a stark contrast to the Philadelphia DA’s efforts to end cash bail earlier this year. According to Natalie Nelson, an African studies major also in attendance, “Zappala stated Molly didn’t know what she was talking about and that she didn’t know how the cash bail system worked.” Molly argues that the Q&A that they attended was not in the spirit of what a candidate Q&A should be: “The purpose for having candidates on campus is to engage, ask questions and hold them accountable…We simply wanted answers.”
Despite a less than satisfactory experience at the Q&A, Stephanie says that individual research is as essential as candidate interaction: “Researching the ballot beforehand on platforms like Vote411 or Ballotpedia can be very helpful in informing voters.”
And this information isn’t limited to candidates. Marsy’s Law is also on the ticket. Mary urges people to vote on this measure because it “will directly impact those living in our communities and those accused of a crime in Pennsylvania. By voting in local elections like the one occurring tomorrow, we make our voices heard and advocate to better our communities.” And the best way to know how such a measure could impact our communities is research.
Nationally, the percentage of college students voting is on the rise. In 2016, 61% of Pitt students voted in the general election. While higher than the national student average, 50.4%, that still means over 11,000 eligible voters at Pitt didn’t go to the polls. Several factors, including confusion on how to register, not knowing where to vote, late absentee ballots, busy schedules, and lack of exposure to the candidates and their stances, may lead some students to not vote at all.
Mary Roche was kind enough to provide information to commonly asked election questions:
“What’s my ballot going to look like? Who’s going to be on my ballot?”
Websites like BallotReady and BallotPedia let voters plug in their address and get a glimpse at the measures and candidates who will be on their ballot. Additionally, both websites give users information about candidates and what voting “Yes”‘ or “No” on measures can mean policy-wise.
“How can check my voter registration status? Am I registered to vote in PA?”
This question is a big one – many students move during their time at Pitt or are coming from out-of-state. The most user-friendly voting 101 website is VotesPA. I’ve used their resources many times – they have links to updating voter registration, registering to vote in Pennsylvania, even looking up your polling place!
“Who is my state representative? Who’s my Senator?”
State level: You can find your state legislators here
Specific Measures on the Ballot
The Marsy’s Law measure has recently been covered comprehensively and discussed at length in the media. I learned more about the measure through posts by the ACLU Pennsylvania and the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania.
Election Day is upon us, readers, and though it can seem intimidating, it doesn’t have to be, especially when you consider the impact your vote can make. Even a quick read over some of the sources above can help make you a more informed voter. Natalie Nelson summarizes it well: “There are many barriers when it comes to voting, so it is necessary that we use our privilege to vote as a way to express not just our own voices, but the voices of those who have been disenfranchised as well.”