SHARON — About a month before Americans will use their votes to register their opinions on the direction of their country, Alijah Douglas was taking a survey of his fellow Penn State Shenango students on another subject — tattoos.
Douglas, a senior majoring in criminal justice with a double minor in history and human development and family studies, was performing an opinion study, with questions like, “Do you think having tattoos make a person look deviant?”
His poll was part of a class assignment, but Douglas, a South Bend, Ind., native who lives in Farrell, is also deeply interested in the poll he and other Americans will take on Nov. 6, an election for all 435 members of the House of Representatives and 35 senators. In Pennsylvania, voters will elect a governor, all 203 members of the state House of Representatives, and half of the state’s 50 senators.
Mercer County residents of all political stripes expressed a wide range of opinions as part of The Herald’s interviews for CNHI’s Pulse of the Voters project.
In a county that backed Donald Trump in the 2016 election, the president still enjoys support among many Mercer County residents, including 93-year-old Joe Laslow, who lives at the Whispering Oaks assisted living residence in Hermitage. Laslow listed “jobs and the wall” as his main concerns.
Laslow said he wanted to see the United States build a wall along the nation’s southern border with Mexico, one of President Donald Trump’s most ambitious 2016 campaign pledges.
“You better believe we need the wall,” he said. “There are a lot of cuckoos coming into the country.”
The national employment picture, which has been improving during the Trump presidency,with unemployment falling below 4 percent — is another of Laslow’s personal priorities. Here, he said, his concern focuses on young people.
“I just want jobs for these young kids,” he said.
Jane Schell, of Clark, disagrees with Laslow on Trump. She said it will be her personal priority to use the midterms to limit the president’s authority.
While sitting in the stands at a Hermitage-Sharpsville border rivalry soccer match, Schell decried the federal government’s policy mandating the separation of children from their parents at the border with Mexico, which she called “disgusting,” and the government’s response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
She said government needs to be more responsive to the needs of its citizens and that current policy coming out of Washington makes her “feel alone.”
In the long term, however, Schell said she wants to see younger people get involved with politics. She said younger voters and officeholders are more likely to have grown up in homes where at least one parent has a college education and with parents who placed a high value on education.
“We need more young people to go in with new ideas,” she said. “I’m tired of the same old, same old.”
Schell said American politics needs more diverse perspectives, such as those from younger voters, and voters who have experienced life outside the United States.
She has traveled in Europe and said the experience has been valuable.
“People need to travel to realize how good we have it,” she said.
Douglas, the Penn State Shenango senior, called criminal justice reform the most important issue in the midterms, but he had a long list of concerns heading into next month’s election — immigration, climate change, marijuana legalization, sustainable economy and international relations.
He said voting and political activity are important considerations for good citizenship.
“Politics and public policy is what makes everyone lives better,” he said.
But he’s not just paying lip service to that cause.
He’s getting involved.
Douglas also is a member of the Mercer County Criminal Justice Advisory Board, which brings together members of the community, elected officials and law enforcement to determine best practices for the criminal justice system.
One of his strategies is to help reform criminal justice from the inside by helping minorities find jobs in the field.
“We want to get them in a position to get employed in the criminal justice system,” he said.
Another Penn State student, Kimberly Reiter, is concerned about issues that affect her family, including trade and the tariff package enacted earlier this year by the president. Her son works at NLMK Pennsylvania in Farrell, which has been negatively impacted by the tariffs against foreign-made steel
After raising her family, Reiter returned to school at Penn State Shenango, where she is studying to be a certified nurse practitioner.
Her political beliefs stem from her personal concerns. She is focused on education and trade, particularly where it affects her son, an employee at NLMK Pennsylvania, which has been negatively impacted by the tariffs imposed by Donald Trump on foreign-made steel.
“It’s affected the lives of a lot of workers down there,” said Reiter, 48, of Transfer.
She said the trade wars are affecting her on a more personal level because she’s finding it more difficult to find deals online.
“I do a lot of shopping online to buy school supplies for my children,” she said. “A lot of the stuff I get overseas, now I can’t get that.”
Reiter said she voted two years ago for Trump, largely out of concern for educational policy. She hoped to see more funding for public schools and technical schools.
“There was a lot of debating, wondering where the money was supposed to go,” she said.
Reiter said even though she voted for the president, she is not bound to party affiliations with her political support.
“I kind of waiver on the party,” she said. “I’ll go against candidates that I like, if I don’t agree with them on the issues.”
Others surveyed agreed — it is not politics that sends them to the ballot box, but a desire to see promises kept and partisanship set aside.
And for Heather Tomasko, a nursing student from Kinsman, Ohio, there is another factor that will affect her midterm votes.
She said a candidate’s character and job performance should go hand-in-hand.
“I think character is just as important as how good of a job they do in office,” she said. “With everything that’s going on right now, we need someone who cares about people as much as they care about their job. I think politicians should spend less time on Twitter and more time actually interacting with people.”
From a rural area, Tomasko fears that some of the country’s smaller areas could get left behind – especially farming communities.
“Farmers are the ones supplying our food, so we need to make sure they are supported before the big corporations,” she said. “Right now it seems like we only want to help the rich people and are forgetting about the ‘little guy.’”
For Allen Fennell, 66, of Shenango Township, there are important issues that could affect the country for generations on his mind as he ponders for whom he will cast his votes.
“I definitely don’t think politicians should change the Constitution,” he said. “After all, we’ve had the Constitution for over 200 years and it still applies today like it did back then.”
He is also focused on some traditional issues as well.
“I don’t want any of the politicians taking away any more gun rights, because I’m a card-carrying member of the NRA,” he said. “It seemed like it all started after the shooting in Florida and they keep trying to take away more of our rights here and there, but they’re not looking at the real problems of why these people commit these shootings.”
He said he has found it a little difficult to keep on top of the important questions facing the country.
“I always try to stay informed on what’s going on, but sometimes it’s hard because you have politicians attacking each other, and they lose track of the issues,” Fennell said.
But there is one message that he said should resonate with every eligible voter on either side.
“I think people should go out to vote. It’s a privilege that we get to have living in this country and we should use it.,” Fennell said.