Monday, March 14, 2016
On March 15 two “special elections” will be held: in the 200th PA House district to choose a candidate to serve the remainder of Cherelle Parker’s term; in the 192nd PA House district to serve the remainder of Louise Bishop‘s term.
Special elections have been widely criticized as undemocratic--as reporter Patrick Kerkstra 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 last 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 3 ward leaders of the 9th, 22nd and 50th wards were the decision makers in 2016 special election for the 200th district house seat, somewhere back in the mists of time committeepeople had a say in selecting the endorsed candidate. At some point, the joint ward meeting of committeepeople then 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.
If committeepeople were the decision makers in choosing the party’s nominee in a special election, as they are in most Pennsylvania counties, there would be hundreds of people involved in the decision-making instead of a handful of ward leaders. This would be a significant improvement, but would still leave voters out of the process of choosing their party’s standard bearer.
A BETTER WAY OF RUNNING SPECIAL ELECTIONS
We do need some mechanism for filling an unanticipated vacancy. 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 try to curry favor with party leaders, hoping their loyalty might be rewarded by endorsement in a special election. Thus many would-be elected officials see special elections as a very easy route to political office and many of our elected officials have begun their careers this way. From a list of winners of Special Elections for State and Congressional seats compiled by Democratic party activist Joe Driscoll:
1992 2nd Congressional District Lucien Blackwell
1993 200th Legislative District Leanna Washington
1993 2nd Senatorial District William Stinson
1994 198th Legislative District Rosita Youngblood
1995 201st Legislative District John Myers
1996 3rd Senatorial District Shirley Kitchen
1998 1st Congressional District Bob Brady
1999 191st Legislative District Ronald Waters
2005 4th Senatorial District Leanna Washington
2006 174th Legislative District John Sabatina Jr.
2011 185th Legislative District Maria Donatucci
2012 186th Legislative District Harold James
2012 197th Legislative District Gary Williams
2015 170th Legislative District Martina White
2015 5th Senatorial District John Sabatina Jr.
The rules governing special elections are a matter of state law; thus 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.