New voter registrations surge

Contributing writer

Keen interest in the Nov. 3 presidential election has pumped up the number of registered voters across the nation, and that trend was true, too, in Venango, Clarion and Forest counties.

Monday was the last day for residents to register to vote for the first time and for individuals who were previously signed up to vote to change their address, name or party affiliation.

Tri-county voter registration offices were kept busy up until closing Monday to process the registration changes and tally up the numbers.

“Monday was extremely busy with the number of applicants who wanted to register to vote or change their parties,” said Melanie Bailey, the Venango County voter registrar.

Overall, the tri-county figures show a surge in new voters with more than 3,300 residents added to the voter rolls since the primary election in June. The bulk of the new signups were Republican in the three counties.

Eligible to vote Nov. 3 in the tri-county are 61,033 residents, higher than the 57,686 total pegged for the June primary election.

Republicans are listed at 35,895 (59 percent) and Democrats tally in at 17,733 (29 percent). Compared to the June statistics, the GOP ranks climbed by 2 percent while the Democrats lost 2 percent.

That tri-county GOP registration edge runs counter to the statewide figure that shows Democrats holding a 700,000 edge over the GOP in Pennsylvania.

Independents and third party members, expected to be major players in Pennsylvania in the tight presidential contest between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, make up 12 percent of the tri-county electorate with 7,405 individuals in that category.

Here are the latest voter registration figures for Venango, Clarion and Forest counties:

Venango County

A total of 33,252 residents are registered to cast ballots in Venango County. A breakdown shows 19,237 Republicans (58 percent) and 9,736 Democrats (29 percent).

The remaining voters are registered with minor political parties or as independents.

The spark in voter interest is evident when compared with just a few months ago. Since the primary election in June, the registered voter pool has increased by nearly 2,200 in Venango County.

Compared to the Trump-Hillary Clinton race in November 2016, the Venango County voter total is about 450 higher for the upcoming election.

There’s a dramatic change, though, in the party affiliation. There are about 1,300 fewer registered Democrats today in the county but nearly 1,700 more Republicans than in 2016.

It is an even sharper decline for the Democrats when compared to the Barack Obama-John McCain contest in 2008 when Venango County Democrats claimed 13,315 loyalists. Venango County Republicans in that race came in at 17,624.

“There was a lot of switching parties in the past few weeks but that was on all sides,” said Bailey. “Some went for a specific party while others registered as independent.”

Clarion County

The voter roster in Clarion County lists 24,277 residents who are registered to vote. The count includes 14,690 Republicans (61 percent) and 6,842 Democrats (28 percent).

Since the 2020 primary, the county has gained about 1,000 new voters. The Republicans gained another 1,062 voters while the Democrats fell by about 100.

Compared to the November 2016 election, the eligible voter numbers are about 150 higher for this year’s election. The Republicans topped their total since then by 1,600 voters while the Democrats fell by 1,400 voters.

Cindi Callihan, director of elections, said the final count of voter registrations was not complete as of Tuesday.

“I expect the number will go up a bit once we’ve finished,” she said. “So these are not the final figures.”

Forest County

Forest County lists 3,504 residents as registered to cast ballots. A breakdown shows 1,968 Republicans (56 percent) and 1,155 Democrats (33 percent).

The listing of registered voters is higher than the 3,386 residents signed up to vote in the 2020 primary. The Republicans gained about 110 new voters while the Democratic Party picked up 11 new members.

The Nov. 3 voter count is higher than the previous presidential race in 2016 by about 200 voters. The GOP has gained 200 voters since then while the Democrats fell by 100.

Busy county offices

Tallying all the voter registration numbers while also processing applications for mail-in and absentee ballots have made for very busy county election offices.

“We saw a surge in new voter registrations at the same time we were working on ballot applications,” said Cindi Callihan, director of elections in Clarion County. “We have at least 4,700 mail-in and absentee ballots and that is higher than ever. And we are getting bombarded with phone calls about the absentee ballots, the mail-in ballots, voter registration – people are calling all the way through the ballot procedures, from applying for one to filling them out.”

In Forest County, elections director Jean Ann Hitchcock also noted the mail-in and absentee ballot applications were “much, much more than normal” this year.

“In a typical election year before the COVID, we’d have about 80 to 120 absentee ballots. Now, with the mail-ins, I have sent out 818 absentee and mail-in ballots and that doesn’t count the military or overseas ballots,” said Hitchcock. “Add to that the surge in voter registration, both for people changing parties and new registrations, and we’ve been very busy.”

Venango County election officials, too, are working hard to keep up with registering new voter information and dealing with ballots and applications.

“There was a lot of switching parties on all sides and many going independent,” said Bailey. “As for mail-in (ballots), we are seeing two times more Democrats than Republicans applying for them.”

As to the flurry of questions going daily to county election offices, Callihan said she wants to assure the public that pre-election procedures as well as operations on Nov. 3 will go smoothly.

“I understand the public’s concerns and we are doing everything we can do to make sure your ballot is counted. That is why we are here,” said Callihan. “This is certainly a different election than we’ve ever had.”