The cost of these Pa. special elections is anything but special for the taxpayers | Opinion

January 24, 2020 6:30 am

Pennsylvania state House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, says one of his main concerns is to “protect taxpayers.” However, one of his recent moves did anything but “protect taxpayers.”

Turzai recently called for three special elections in the state House to be held on March 17, instead of waiting to hold them at the same time as the presidential primary election on April 28. The special elections could well cost taxpayers an additional $600,000 to $1 million.

The special elections will allow voters to pick replacements for three Republican lawmakers who won election last November to municipal offices in Mercer, Westmoreland and Bucks counties for the 8th, 18th and 58th House Districts.

Reps. Ted Nesbit, of Mercer County, and Justin Walsh, of Westmoreland County, won county judgeships, while Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, of Bucks County was elected county commissioner.

The term will run through the end of the year. Voters in the primary election will be nominating candidates to run in the November general election for a full two-year term.

It’s doubtful if taxpayers will be getting anything of real value by holding the special elections six weeks early.

Turzai’s spokesman Neal Lesher wrote the Capital-Star’s Steve Caruso in a text message that, “under this Speaker, we have consistently called special elections as soon as practically possible to ensure that all Pennsylvanians have a voice in the people’s House.”

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As an example, Lesher cited the Feb. 25 special election to fill a vacancy created by the resignation of ex-Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell, D-Philadelphia. Johnson-Harell pleaded guilty this week to stealing more than $500,000 from a nonprofit she once ran.

However, while Johnson-Harrell resigned in December, all three Republican senators won their races last November, meaning if Turzai was truly concerned about timing, he should have scheduled the elections for January, allowing the newly-elected lawmakers to take part in as many as 15 extra session days.

House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, was upset with the scheduling of the elections.

“There’s no good reason to hold these elections on a separate date so close to the primary,” Dermody said. “It’s a large cost, one that’s un-budgeted, and a needless complication that benefits nobody except a few political insiders.”       

The two elections will create additional headaches for county elections officials, who will also contend with new voting machines, registration deadlines, and mail-in votes, Dermody pointed out.

“Pennsylvania is in the midst of unprecedented changes to our voting laws and voting machines. County workers who should be focused on preparing for the smoothest possible April primary will have to conduct these additional special elections on very short notice,” Dermody said.

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“The representatives who get elected on March 17 will barely have a chance to set up their offices and be sworn in before the House recesses again in April for the primary election,” he added.

PennLive reported last year that the average cost of holding a special election since 2014 was $178,204 per race. But Dermody put that cost at $300,000 and $500,000 per election.

Beth Lechman, of Westmoreland County’s Election Bureau, told the Tribune-Review, that election costs for the 58th District are estimated to exceed $200,000. She noted the   county will have to hire poll workers, rent locations for the 66 voting precincts that make up the 58th District and possibly rent voting machines.

Lechman said her cost estimates are based on what the county spent for a similar special election conducted in March 2016.

She added that the county might even have to take out a loan to pay for the election. The county will eventually be reimbursed by the state for the election but noted, the county’s budget approved last month included nothing for un-budgeted expenses.

“I don’t think it’s fair the county should have to pay. It should come from the state upfront. It’s unfortunate, but we’ll have to deal with it,” said Westmoreland County Commissioners’ Chairman Sean Kertes.

So, what’s the real reason for holding the elections six weeks before the primary. It’s certainly not to cut costs or to hold them in a timely manner.

Well, according to the Capital-Star, Wanda Murren, spokesperson for the Department of State, said turnout in one recent legislative special election last August in Union and Snyder counties was 29 percent. Meanwhile, turnout in the 2016 primaries was 42 percent among Democrats and 51 percent among Republicans.

So, could this be the real reason for Turzai’s move?

Is he hoping that lower turnout will make it easier for Republicans to win those races? Is he also trying to hamper the efforts of   Democratic candidates in those races by giving them less time to mount their campaigns?

While the decision to move up the elections leaves a lot unanswered questions, Turzai can end all the speculation by reversing course and scheduling the special elections on the same day as the primary election. It’s the right thing to do, saving everyone a lot of money and trouble.

Capital-Star Opinion contributor Mark O’Keefe, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., is the former Editorial Page editor of the Uniontown Herald-Standard. His work appears biweekly.

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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.