When citizens go to the polls on Election Day, they will be asked to choose among nominees for a special election to fill a vacancy for the two Council-at-large positions left open when Allan Domb and Derek Green resigned to run for mayor. (Domb has not officially declared his candidacy.) There has been little publicity about this election; most voters know little about the candidates. The nominees have not made their positions known to the public at candidates’ forums or (to my knowledge) through any other communications with voters.
Special elections have been widely criticized as undemocratic. 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 seven-to-one Democratic voter registration edge, the endorsed Democrat is almost certain to win and has the advantage of running in the next primary as an incumbent.
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 officials 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, including Democratic Party Chair Bob Brady, who won a special election to represent the 1st Congressional District in 1998.
Although the ward leaders are the decision makers in the 2022 special election, somewhere back in the mists of time, committeepeople had a say in selecting the endorsed candidates. If committeepeople were among the decision makers, it would be an improvement. There would be hundreds of people involved instead of a handful of ward leaders. But this still would leave voters out of the process of choosing their party’s standard bearer.
A better way
Instead of having the political parties choose the candidate, why not allow all those who want to run under the Democratic or Republican banner to 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 Philadelphia’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 would soon face the voters again as a candidate in the primary and, if successful, in the general election.
Since the rules governing special elections are a matter of state law, the rules would have to be changed by the Pennsylvania 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 over the voters’ interests. It won’t be easy, but it’s time to change the rules governing special elections.
Pennsylvania representative Chris Rabb has introduced legislation (HB 1661) seeking to democratize special elections. The bill stipulates:
Individuals interested in becoming a candidate in a special election would be required to do the following:
- File their candidacy with the political party within each county of the legislative district.
- Pay a $250 filing fee.
- Prepare, or opt-out of preparing, a short video announcing their candidacy which will be posted on the websites of the Department of State’s and the county party with which candidates are affiliated.
- The adoption of this legislation would also require political parties to advertise and hold a meeting accessible to any voter eligible to vote in the special election, whether in person or remotely, with the majority of eligible committeepersons present, to consider each individual who seeks consideration as a candidate in a special election.
Representative Rabb notes, “Special elections have left habitual voters out of the process in favor of back-room benedictions.”
Defending democracy is not just a matter of demanding respect for democracy on the presidential level. Failure to demand democracy and transparency in local politics can lead to an erosion of commitment to democratic values on the national level. Rabb’s bill will bring voters back into the process and is an important step forward in upholding democratic values. We need to fight for it.
Karen Bojar is a former committeeperson who served for over three decades in Philadelphia’s 9th ward and also as the author of Green Shoots of Democracy in the Philadelphia Democratic Party, an analysis of the Philadelphia ward system.
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