Sen. Dave Arnold, R-Lebanon, takes the oath of office on Jan. 29. Arnold died at age 49 on Jan. 17, 2021. Source: PA State Senate.
(*This story has been updated to correct the date of the 2020 primary election. It was June 2, 2020)
The political announcements were routine, generating little attention.
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman recently scheduled a special election to be held on May 18, the same day as Pennsylvania’s spring primary, to fill the seat of the late state Sen. Dave Arnold, R-Lebanon, who died of brain cancer on Jan. 17.
The news came on the heels of an announcement by House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, that another special election will be held on May 18 to fill the seat of the late state Rep. Mike Reese’s seat R-Westmoreland, who died of a brain aneurysm on Jan. 2.
There are no deadlines for special elections concerning vacant legislative seats in the state constitution. The presiding officer where the vacancy occurs sets a date for special elections.
Usually, they’re scheduled for the primary or general election, whichever is closer. However, that wasn’t the case last year, and it caused a major controversy.
Then-House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, decided to fill three vacant seats in the House last year by scheduling special elections for March 17 instead of holding them on the *June 2 primary.
The special elections were held just as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the state and drew fire from Democratic Party officials.
“Republicans should be ashamed of putting politics before the health of Pennsylvania families,” said Jessica Post, of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which works to get Democrats elected to state legislatures nationwide.
Then House Minority Leader Frank, D-Allegheny, amplified that sentiment, saying “there’s no good reason to hold these elections on a separate date so close to the primary. It’s a large cost, one that’s unbudgeted, and a needless complication that benefits nobody except a few political insiders.”
Dermody, who recently was appointed to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, the ultimate insider post, also noted that the elections created additional headaches for county elections officials with new voting machines, registration deadlines, and mail-in votes.
Dermody estimated that the elections would cost Pennsylvania taxpayers an additional $1 million and perhaps more.
While there were problems in all three elections, they were severe in the 58th Legislative District, which includes parts of Westmoreland County.
According to the Tribune-Review, county election officials moved two polling locations at the last minute because of health concerns. They also had to recruit dozens of new poll workers to replace those who resigned their posts days before the election.
Beth Lechman, director of Westmoreland County’s Elections Bureau, told the Tribune-Review that bureau offices were deluged with calls asking about the special election status, with some expressing concern about holding an election during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Turzai’s then-spokesman, Neal Lesher, said special elections are called “as soon as practically possible to ensure that all Pennsylvanians have a voice in the people’s House.”
But all three Republican lawmakers won their races for other offices last November, meaning if Turzai was genuinely concerned about timing, he should have scheduled the elections for January. By doing this, the newly-elected state representatives would have been able to begin serving their terms immediately.
*It’s doubtful if taxpayers got anything of real value anyway by holding the special elections six weeks early.
Interestingly, Turzai chose to hold the special elections on March 17, which is St. Patrick’s Day. After all, he could have held the special elections on any day between January and April. Was he possibly hoping that people would be too busy celebrating to bother with casting their ballots?
It’s clear that by scheduling the special elections when he did, Turzai wasn’t worried about holding the elections promptly or saving taxpayers money. He showed little concern for voters or poll workers’ safety, especially those who were senior citizens. Knowing all this would result in extremely low turnouts, Turzai also showed little regard for democracy.
All three races drew a fraction of the votes cast in the 2018 general election for those seats. Two drew 30 percent of the 2018 turnout, and one drew 17 percent.
It was never clear why Turzai couldn’t wait to hold the special elections. All three seats were in districts dominated by the GOP, and all three Republicans easily won their seats in the special election and the general election in the fall.
Did Turzai think Democrats would have a much better chance of winning the seats if the turnout was higher? Who knows?
At any rate, it was interesting that there was no talk this year about the special election disaster controversy, even among Democrats,
Is it possible that Republicans recognized the mistake from last year and made a conscious decision not to repeat it?
Is it possible that this was some Turzai pet peeve, and with him no longer in office, it went out the window? And is it possible that Democrats somehow just chose to let bygones be bygones?
We’ll never know for sure because no one said anything about last year. But there should have been some acknowledgment from both Republicans and Democrats that moving the special elections up last year was a big mistake and won’t happen again.
Until that happens, we can’t be sure that history won’t repeat itself.
Opinion contributor Mark O’Keefe, of Mechanicsburg, Pa.., is the former editorial page editor of the Uniontown Herald-Standard. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.
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