Turzai schedules March 17 special elections for three House seats

Pa. House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny ("Friends of Mike Turzai" / WikiMedia Commons)

Raising the ire of Democrats, House Speaker Mike Turzai has scheduled three special elections barely a month ahead of Pennsylvania’s 2020 presidential primary.

The March 17 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. Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, a veteran moderate from Bucks County, won a county commissionership.

In response, Democrats said Turzai was inconveniencing voters and election workers while wasting taxpayer dollars by not scheduling the elections for the April 28 presidential primary.

“There’s no good reason to hold these elections on a separate date so close to the primary,” House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, said in a statement. “It’s a large cost, one that’s unbudgeted, 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.

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.

Dermody’s spokesman, Bill Patton, told the Capital-Star that he does not “have an accounting for each [election],” but claimed that “in recent years, the cost of special elections on standalone dates continued to rise.”

At stake is much more than just the cost to the taxpayers. Political operatives from both parties told the Capital-Star that a standalone election will have far less turnout than one matching primary day — and a presidential primary at that.

According to Wanda Murren, spokesperson for the Department of State, turnout in the state’s most recent legislative special — 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.

Turzai’s spokesman Neal Lesher wrote 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.”

As an example, Lesher cited the Feb. 25 special election to fill a vacancy created by last month’s resignation of ex-Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell, D-Philadelphia.

Constituents have sometimes waited longer. Special elections for vacancies that opened up in early 2018 were scheduled for that year’s May primary. The state reimburses counties for special elections to the General Assembly.

At least one Philadelphia Democrat has suggested forcing lawmakers who leave office before their terms are over to pay for the cost of their replacement.

Picking candidates for special elections can be a covert and complicated process. A state lawmaker wants to change that

Democrats have already announced plans to contest open seats, particularly in the southeast. The 18th District, including Bensalem in lower Bucks County, has consistently voted Democratic up ballot even as Republicans win near the bottom.

Meanwhile, Democrats feel they could compete in the 58th District, in ancestrally blue Westmoreland County, with a solid candidate — Robert Prah, a veteran and local official. The district was until recently held by a Democrat, but flipped red in 2016 and heavily backed President Donald Trump.

But Republicans weren’t holding their breath.

“These elections, I don’t think there will be any surprises,” GOP political operative Chris Nicholas told the Capital-Star.