Dems rolled the dice on ending straight-ticket voting. They paid the price with row office losses | Mark O’Keefe

November 22, 2020 6:30 am

Joe Torsella concedes to Republican Stacy Garrity in race for treasury seat (Capital-Star screen capture.)

Despite Joe Biden’s victory in Pennsylvania, there was a lot of hand-wringing and second-guessing among Democratic Party officials across the state as an expected Blue Wave never developed.

Democrats had hoped to build on their victories in the 2018 elections when Gov. Tom Wolf and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., won re-election, and the party picked up up 10 seats in the state House of Representatives and four apiece in the U.S. Congress and state Senate.

But it was Republicans who dominated elections other than the presidential race. The GOP won two statewide races for auditor general with Timothy DeFoor topping fellow newcomer Nina Ahmad, and treasurer with Stacy Garrity ousting incumbent Joe Torsella.

It was the first time a Republican was elected auditor general since 1992, and the first time an incumbent Democrat lost a state row office since 1994.

With vote-counting continuing, Republicans were also on track to pad their leads in both the state House of Representatives and Senate.

Election results update: Torsella concedes treasury seat to Garrity

Democrats took the losses to heart, with some severe in-fighting coming after the election. On the one hand, progressives contended that the failure to advance popular liberal policies led to Democrats down-ballot losses.

On the other hand, moderates maintained that angry protests from progressive activists about policing, health care, and fracking kept scared voters from backing Democrats.

However, one other factor was eliminating straight-party voting, which the legislature banned last year.
Given the record number of ballots cast this year, it’s hard to compare the recent election to previous races, especially in down-ballot contests.

But the level of participation below the presidential contest was much lower among Democrats than Republicans in the races for auditor general and treasurer.

As of last Sunday, with more votes still to be counted, DeFoor and Garrity received 42,058 and 87,345 fewer votes, respectively, than Trump. However, Ahmad and Torsella received 327,330 and 278,209 fewer votes, respectively, than Biden.

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Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, received 5,623 more votes than Biden. His opponent Heather Heidelbaugh received 224,942 fewer votes than Trump. Overall below the presidential election, there was a decline of 111,734 votes for attorney general, 166,068 votes for auditor general, and 155,333 for treasurer.

The lack of voting was crucial in the race for treasurer as Torsella was trailing Garrity by 63,227 votes. DeFoor was leading Ahmad by 218,619 votes.

According to an analysis by PennLive, more than 726,000 voters in 59 Pennsylvania counties voted straight-party in 2018. That was about 37 percent of the nearly 2 million people who cast ballots in 2018.

Of those who voted straight party, 51 percent indicated they were voting straight Republican and 48 percent straight Democratic.

However, five of the eight counties where information wasn’t available included some of the state’s most populous counties, namely Philadelphia, Delaware, Bucks, Dauphin, and Erie, which all have more registered Democrats than Republicans.

There were some concerns that the elimination of straight-party voting could hurt Democratic Party candidates down the ballot.

Democrats, including Gov. Tom Wolf, initially opposed the ban, noting that many of those straight voting party were older Democrats.

They also said the move would create bottlenecks and longer lines at polling places in more densely populated urban areas, where many Black people reside.

Democrats in Pennsylvania’s state House conducted an internal analysis that showed eliminating the straight-ticket option would negatively impact the party.

“The evidence is that eliminating the straight party option disproportionately impacts Democratic constituencies,” said Rep. Kevin Boyle, of Philadelphia, the ranking Democrat on the House State Government Committee, which has oversight of election-related issues.

Wolf and Democratic lawmakers changed their positions when the Republicans agreed to allow mail-in voting. Previously the state had only allowed absentee ballots with strict limitations.

Progressive groups, including the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, praised the package.
The bill includes significant overhauls to Pennsylvania’s “antiquated voting laws,” said Wolf spokesperson J.J. Abbott, including “regressive absentee and voter registration deadlines” that negatively impact participation.

With the move, Pennsylvania joined 31 other states with no-excuse voting by mail. It became the 12th state that automatically mails either an absentee ballot or ballot application to residents who have signed up to receive one every election.

It’s hard to blame the Democratic Party’s losses this election solely on the straight-party voting ban. But it was the first election where voters weren’t allowed to cast straight-party ballots, and perhaps some people were confused or uncertain about voting.

Of course, maybe some voters didn’t like any of the candidates in those races. It’s also possible that some Republicans supported only Biden.

But given the poor showing by Democrats, they need to redouble their efforts and make sure voters realize the down-ballot races’ significance.

Perhaps the Democrats should have run some televised ads, stressing the importance of casting votes in all races. The bottom line is that while counting all ballots is essential, it’s also crucial that all ballots are filled out.

Opinion contributor Mark O’Keefe, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., is the former editorial page of the Uniontown Herald-Standard. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. 

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Mark O'Keefe
Mark O'Keefe

Opinion contributor Mark O'Keefe, of Mechanicsburg, Pa.,  is the former editorial page editor of the Herald-Standard of Uniontown. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star's Commentary Page.