When the people go to the polls election daythey are asked to choose among the nominees for a special choice to fill a vacancy for the two vacant General Council positions Allan Domb and Derek Green resigned to run for mayor. (Domb has not officially declared his candidacy.) There was little publicity about this election; Most voters know little about the candidates. The candidates have not made their positions known to the public either in candidate forums or (to my knowledge) by other communications to voters.
Special elections have often been criticized as undemocratic. The district leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties, not the voters as in a primary, select the candidate to run under the banner of the Democratic or Republican party. If another Democrat or Republican wishes to run, that person must run as an independent along with any minor party candidates who choose to run. Given Philly’s seven-to-one voter registration advantage for the Democrats, the supported Democrat will almost certainly win and has the advantage of running for incumbent in the next primary.
The current system gives political party leaders a powerful tool – a way to maintain loyalty and control. Those who seek elected office and do not want to vote in a contested election flatter themselves with party bosses in the hope that their loyalty will be rewarded with support in a special election. As such, many prospective officers see special elections as a very easy route to political office, and quite a few of our elected officers began their careers that way, including as the Democratic Party chairman Bob Bradywho won a special election to represent the 1st congressional district in 1998.
Although district leaders are the decision-makers in the 2022 special election, at some point long ago committee members had a say in choosing supported candidates. If committee members were among the decision-makers, that would be an improvement. Instead of a handful of community leaders, hundreds of people would be involved. But this would still keep voters out of the process of choosing their party’s flag-bearer.
A better way
Instead of letting the political parties choose the candidate, why not allow anyone who wants to run under the Democrat or Republican banner to do so? The political parties could still support their preferred candidate, who would presumably have an advantage as a supported candidate. But voters would ultimately decide which candidate to fill the seat with for the remainder of the term. In most of Philadelphia’s largely Democratic counties, one of the Democrats would undoubtedly win — but at least Democratic voters would have a choice the Democrat. The victor would remain in office for a relatively short period of time and would soon be back before the electorate as a candidate in the primaries and, if successful, in the parliamentary elections.
Because the rules for special elections are a matter of state law, the rules would need to be changed by the Pennsylvania legislature. With the current system granting party insiders considerable power, lawmakers would be under considerable pressure to resist any changes – and many would not need persuasion to support party insiders on voter interests. It won’t be easy, but it’s time to change the rules governing special elections.
Pennsylvania Representative Chris Rabb introduced legislation (HB1661) with the aim of democratizing special elections. That invoice stipulates:
Individuals interested in running for office in a special election must do the following:
- Submit your candidacy to the political party in each county in the Legislative District.
- Pay a $250 registration fee.
- Prepare or decline to prepare a short video announcing their candidacy, which will be posted on the websites of the State Department and the county party to which the candidates belong.
- Passing this law would also require political parties to announce and hold a meeting open to all eligible voters in the special elections in person or remotely, with a majority of eligible committee members present to elect each person consider seeking consideration as a candidate in a special election.
Rep. Rabb notes, “Special elections have locked ordinary voters out of the process in favor of backroom blessings.”
Defending democracy is not just a matter of demanding respect for democracy at the presidential level. Failure to demand democracy and transparency in local politics can lead to an erosion of commitment to democratic values at the national level. Rabb’s bill will bring voters back into the process and is an important step forward in upholding democratic values. We have to fight for that.
Karen Boyar is a former committee member who has worked in Philadelphia’s 9th Circuit for over three decades and is also the author of Green Shoots of Democracy in the Philadelphia Democratic Party, an analysis of the Philadelphia Ward System.
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