Monday, January 18, 2016

Special Elections Craziness

Special Elections Craziness

Special elections have been widely criticized as undemocratic--as reporter Patrick Kekstra put it in his report on the August 7 2015 special election, “grotesquely undemocratic.” In special elections to fill a vacancy, Democratic and Republican Party ward leaders in the district, not the voters as in a primary election, choose the candidate to run under the Democratic or Republican Party banner. If another Democrat or Republican wants to run, that person must run as an Independent along with any minor party candidates who choose to run. Given Philly’s 7 to 1 Democratic voter registration edge and poor track record in electing independents for local offices, the endorsed Democrat is almost certain to win and has the advantage of running in the next primary as the incumbent.

The turnout for the special election on August 7, 2015 was pathetic. The special election to be held on March 15, 2016 rates to be worse, as it will be held just six weeks before the April 26 primary election, rather than concurrently with it, as had been expected. Taxpayers are now burdened with the expense of two elections.

Although the ward leaders are the decision makers in the 2016 special election, somewhere back in the mists of time committeepeople had a say in selecting the endorsed candidate. Democratic Party activist Joe Driscoll discovered that, unknown to most committeepeople, the party rules had been revised in 2014 to eliminate the participation of committeepeople. From Driscoll’s summary of changes in party rules: Rule X, Article 1 was amended to change the method by which [candidates for] State Representative are chosen for nomination in Special Elections, transferring the power of choosing nominees from committeepeople to ward leaders. Previously, State Representatives were chosen by a special meeting of the ward (if the district is comprised of one ward) or a joint ward meeting (where the district is comprised of more than one ward). The newly amended version provides that the nominee shall be chosen by ward leader(s) in which the district is comprised.

At some point, the joint ward meeting required by the party rules was no longer held, and the decision was made solely by the ward leaders—-with the exception of those very few wards in which committeepeople vote and the ward leader is bound by their vote. In order to change the rules to make them consistent with current practice, the party bylaws stipulate certain procedures must be followed: a committee charged with revising the rules must be appointed and must make a written report to the County Committee. A notice must be sent to all members of the County Committee advising them of the date of the meeting to act upon recommendations for revision of the rules. (Party Rule XIII: Revision of These Rules)

The rules seem to have been revised without any of the above procedures being followed—-thus no discussion of the rationale for revising the rules, no opportunity for ward leaders and committeepeople to raise objections. Over the years the Philadelphia Democratic Party has gotten used to doing whatever it wants to do with very little scrutiny, but recently progressive Democratic Party activists and journalists are taking a closer look at the Party's modus operandi. If committeepeople were among the decision makers it would be an improvement. There would be hundreds of people involved in the decision making instead of a handful of ward leaders. But this still leaves voters out of the process of choosing their party’s standard bearer.

Instead of having the political parties choose the candidate, why not allow all those who want to run under the Democratic banner [or Republican banner] do so. The political parties could still endorse their preferred candidate who would presumably have an edge as the endorsed candidate. But the voters would ultimately decide which candidate they want to fill the seat for the remainder of the term. In most of Philly’s largely Democratic districts, one of the Democrats would no doubt win--but at least Democratic voters would have a choice of which Democrat. The winner would serve for a relatively short time and soon would face the voters again as a candidate in the primary and, if successful, in the general election.

When I’ve asked friends and neighbors what they think of this approach to handling special elections, the response has been positive. Unfortunately the current system gives a powerful tool to leaders of political parties-- a way to maintain loyalty and control. Those who aspire to elected office and who don’t want to run in a contested election curry favor with party bosses, hoping their loyalty might be rewarded by endorsement in a special election. Thus many would-be elected official see special elections as a very easy route to political office and quite a few of our elected officials have begun their careers this way. See a list of winners of Special Elections for State and Congressional seats compiled by Joe Driscoll and posted on the Democratic Committeeperson Facebook page.

Since the rules governing special elections are a matter of state law, the rules would have to be changed by the PA legislature. Since the current system gives considerable power to party insiders, legislators would be under considerable pressure to oppose any changes—and many would not need any persuasion to back the party insiders rather than the voters. It sure won’t be easy, but it’s time to change the rules governing special elections.

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