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

By: - March 15, 2019 6:30 am

By primary day in May, Pennsylvania will have seen more special elections than months in 2019.

At least one state lawmaker has taken notice of the trend and is hoping to bring a greater level of transparency to the often opaque process of selecting these races’ candidates.

According to Department of State records, 25 special elections have been held to replace members of the state House, state Senate, and U.S. Congress since 2015. Four more are scheduled to take place over the next two months.

If state Rep. Fred Keller, R-Snyder, wins the 12th Congressional District special election in May, an election to fill his seat will be added to the calendar.

A proposal out this week from Rep. Chris Rabb, D-Philadelphia, would mandate that all special election candidates are chosen during public meetings.

“Those people who really want consideration to be on the ballot should file for candidacy and also have the opportunity to present their case for why they want to be the nominee in a public meeting where there is a quorum of duly elected committee people present,” Rabb told the Capital-Star.

Candidates would also pay a $250 filing fee to the Department of State, and be required to create an announcement video that would be published on the Department’s website.

Currently, state law allows Democrats and Republicans to determine their own nomination process for special elections.

For legislative races, the local GOP county chair of the vacant district picks registered Republicans — not necessarily committee people — who attend a meeting and select a candidate, according to party bylaws.

If the district covers multiple counties, the state party gets involved (and the process gets a little wonky). Each county party chooses conference attendees, proportional to their share of the district’s population. At a meeting presided over by the state party, these attendees vote on a candidate.

Meetings where Republicans choose their special election candidates are typically closed to the press.

Democratic candidates are chosen by the state executive committee. However, the choice is traditionally preceded by a recommendation from the local party, according to Pennsylvania Democratic Party Executive Director Sinceré Harris.

For races in districts that contain multiple counties, that could get complicated. If they vote separately, party leaders from neighboring counties could each recommend a different candidate.

That’s why the state Democratic Party is pushing to standardize the process, Harris said, to always have a single, public vote by county committee people.

The process was used to nominate now U.S. Rep Conor Lamb for a special election in 2017. Fellow Democrat Pam Iovino, who is running to represent the 37th state Senate district, was nominated that way, too.

Nominations for districts entirely within one county are a different story. According to Harris, local parties play by their own rules.

Philadelphia is by far the most infamous for its process. The closed-door dealings of city Democratic ward leaders have repeatedly bothered good government groups like the Committee of Seventy.

“The utter lack of transparency and public engagement we’ve seen in the partisan nominating process in special after special is extremely frustrating,” Pat Christmas, policy director for Committee of Seventy, said in an email.

Since 2015, eight of the 25 special elections took place in Philadelphia.

This is not Rabb’s first dive into attempts to edit how Pennsylvania picks replacement representatives.

In 2017, Rabb and state Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, introduced a bill to fine General Assembly members who resign for a felony conviction $100,000.

The money would be used to reimburse the Department of State and local governments for the expense of special elections.

Diamond said he hadn’t seen Rabb’s latest proposal, but addressing the number of specials is something “we should be taking a look at that.” He said he would back measures to keep the public involved.

Half of states hold special elections to fill vacant legislative seats. The other half relies on appointments by the Governor, party leaders, county elected officials, or the legislature, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.