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Lehigh Valley Election News

Election 2023: How Tuesday's primary will impact day-to-day life in the Valley

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The primary election will take place May 16.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Municipal primaries may not lead to lines at the ballot box, but they have plenty of impact on households. Wondering why Tuesday's election might matter to you? Here's an explainer from our local politics expert.

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Every two years, voter participation drops like a rock as the election cycle shifts from state and federal races to local ones.

In the 2020 presidential election, turnout hit a staggering 75% only to crumble to 32.5% in 2021.

Christopher Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion and a professor of political science at the school, said a number of factors play into the pattern. For starters, the federal government is often wrestling with hot button issues while local government takes on more mundane matters, he said. Often times, people just don't pay attention to what's happening in their communities as long as their isn't an immediate problem affecting them. It doesn't help, he said, that many states have slashed or entirely cut civics lessons about the role of local government from the school curriculum.

"The governments that are closest to us are often the ones we're least familiar with," Borick said. "To me, it's always a little paradoxical."

But while the stakes may not feel as high, odd-year elections often impact voters more than even-year ones, Borick said. The candidates chosen during local elections exert control over neighborhood schools, decide if large commercial developments will be approved and determine the biggest chunk of residents' tax bills.

Here's a breakdown of local government functions and the stakes voters will weigh in on this primary and in the general election in November.

  • School board members usually control the largest portion of property owners' tax bills and set policy for local education.
  • County officials are tasked with overseeing criminal procedures and protecting society's most vulnerable members
  • Municipal officials oversee local police departments and have the most control over what proposed developments get approved.

School boards

School boards are tasked with overseeing the education of students from kindergarten to high school. While much of the curriculum, standards and funding levels are decided by state officials, local school board directors still have a great deal of autonomy. They hire administrators to run the schools in their districts, set policy, approve curriculum to meet state guidelines, maintain district property and vote on the district's budget. School district millage rates are usually the largest part of property owners' tax bills.

School board directors are allowed to cross-file, meaning they can appear on both the Democratic and Republican primaries. However, some of this year's primary campaigns have taken on an unusually partisan flavor. Some of the more heated races in local school districts include the East Penn School Board and Nazareth Area School Board, where battles over critical race theory and book banning have taken hold. Meanwhile, the ongoing lawsuit over an after school Satan Club have heightened tensions in the Saucon Valley School Board race.

Municipal government

Municipal offices differ slightly depending on their form but oversee the same responsibilities. Boroughs have a mayor, who oversees the police department and a borough council that passes laws and sets the budget and property tax rate. In townships, these responsibilities are merged into a board of supervisors. Cities operate similarly to boroughs, but city mayors oversee the day-to-day operations of all city government, not just the police department.

This level of government is responsible for the care and maintenance of local roads and parks, funding local police if they chose to have their own department, appointing people to municipal boards and approving local zoning and planning ordinances.

Residents with strong opinions about housing or warehouse developments or local police may want to more closely examine their local municipal elections. While state law sets the guidelines communities must follow, municipal officials are ultimately responsible for creating the zoning map that determines where different types of development can go and if they'll allow developers to proceed with projects if they don't strictly adhere to those rules.

This primary features several prominent municipal races. The controversial mixed-use Ridge Farms development is driving debate in the South Whitehall Township commissioners race. The lack of affordable housing in Bethlehem is a key element in the Democratic primary for Bethlehem City Council.

County government

County government has multiple offices, each tasked with different responsibilities. They can be generally divided between the courts and human services.

Most county tax dollars are tied to human services. Each county oversees area agencies on aging; veteran affairs offices; offices of children, youth and families; offices of mental health; and HealthChoices, a Medicare program. State government contributes hundreds of millions of dollars to run these programs, which are intended to protect society's most vulnerable members.

In addition, county governments organize elections, preserve farmland and open space, operate jails, maintain county parks and recreational facilities and run 911 centers. In the Lehigh Valley, the counties also operate Cedarbrook and Gracedale, two government-run nursing homes.

Lehigh and Northampton counties have home rule charters, meaning they operate differently from most other counties in the state. Here, day-to-day operations of county government are overseen by an elected executive. A board of commissioners in Lehigh County and a county council in Northampton County pass ordinances, approve a budget and set the county property tax rate.

Tuesday's primary will see a crowded field for Lehigh County commissioners on the Democratic side. In Northampton County, Council President Kerry Myers has switched parties and is mounting a write-in campaign as a Republican.

Meanwhile, county judges preside over civil and criminal cases serious enough to go beyond district court. District attorneys are tasked with prosecuting people charged with crimes. Both offices are elected in Pennsylvania.

Lehigh County also elects its row officers, people tasked by voters to perform duties tied to the operation of the courts. The sheriff is responsible for safeguarding county facilities, transporting prisoners, serving warrants and processing applications to carry a concealed weapon. The coroner is charged with determining the cause of death in unusual fatalities, and clerk of judicial records is responsible for maintaining and organizing the mountain of legal documents produced by the county court system. In Northampton County, these officers are nominated by the county executive and approved by county council.

The most expensive race in the region has pittedNorthampton County District Attorney Terry Houck against Stephen Baratta, a former county judge. Meanwhile, Republican Nancy Aaroe and Democrat Brian Panella will attempt to secure Baratta's old seat on the bench; that race will likely be decided in November.