Former State Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell exits the Stout Center for Criminal Justice on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020. Johnson-Harrell pleaded guilty after being charged with stealing more than $500,000 from her nonprofit, Motivations Education & Consultation Associates (MECA). (Heather Khalifa / Philadelphia Inquirer)
Cynthia Fernandez covers the most important news and events from the Capitol and state legislature. She is a member of the second class of Lenfest Fellows, a program of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism and supported by the Independence Public Media Foundation. Cynthia joined Spotlight PA from Boston, where she recently completed an undergraduate degree in journalism, with a concentration in computer science, from Boston University. She has interned at several news organizations, including Muck Rock, WBUR, and Boston Magazine. Most recently, she was a part-time breaking news reporter at the Boston Globe and a research assistant for their Spotlight team. A Cuban immigrant and Miami native, Cynthia is particularly interested in reporting on marginalized communities and how they interface with institutional and governmental systems.
HARRISBURG — Voters in west Philadelphia will go to the polls Tuesday to fill a vacancy left by former state Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell, who resigned last year facing corruption charges. They will choose between a Democrat and a Republican — neither of whom were chosen by voters in a primary.
That’s because in Pennsylvania, party insiders and loyalists nominate candidates for special elections. Elected or appointed foot soldiers, handpicked party members, and bigwigs get the final say on who gets on the ballot.
In one special election last year, a Republican House candidate was picked by 17 members of the party — including his own father.
While few in number, special elections come with big implications: A person elected through the process is likely to stick around for years.
“You get someone elected with very low turnout — it could even be single-digit turnout — and the next time that person runs, he or she is an incumbent, and they have great advantages generally speaking,” said David Thornburgh, president and CEO of the good-government group Committee of Seventy. “You could be on a path to longtime office-holding.”
Frustrated lawmakers from both parties are calling for changes to make the process more open and transparent.
‘Endemic of insiderism’
Over the past decade, Pennsylvania has held 44 special elections for state House and Senate seats. Of the candidates who were elected, 31 still hold that office, according to Department of State data analyzed by Spotlight PA. Two are now in Congress.
There have been eight special elections since the current legislative session began in January 2019. After Tuesday, three more are scheduled for March, in Bucks County and Western Pennsylvania.
How special election candidates for the General Assembly are selected varies between party. State law allows Democrats and Republicans to create their own processes.
For the GOP, local committee members pick a candidate when only one county is involved. Otherwise, those members pick a small number of party voters to attend a meeting and select a candidate. In practice, the conferee selection may be made by a committee’s chair. In Lebanon County last year, this led to accusations of a “sham” process.
“Chairmen have full latitude on who they choose and zero restrictions,” said Rep. Andrew Lewis (R-Dauphin), who is drafting a bill to overhaul the process. “I think it is undemocratic and it takes power away from voters. You have less than one percent of voters picking the nominee and I just don’t think that is right.”
Lewis’ proposed legislation would require special primaries, in addition to special elections. He expects opposition not only from the establishment but from members of his party concerned about the high cost of running special elections.
“I am currently looking at different options to bring those costs down,” Lewis said. “We don’t want to incur costs to the taxpayer that don’t have to be there. But I think it is important enough.”
A spokesperson for state Republicans said the party “is very comfortable with its process.”
“Adding a special primary is going to add costs to that, where right now these conferees are done almost basically for free,” a spokesperson, Charlie O’Neill, said.
The state Democratic Party’s executive committee has the final say about special election candidates, according to its bylaws. But the party usually defers to county committee members, who vote to make a recommendation.
Rep. Chris Rabb (D-Philadelphia) has personal experience with the special election process.
He ran as a write-in candidate in a 2016 special after Democratic ward leaders chose Tonyelle Cook-Artis, the politically connected chief of staff to the outgoing representative.
“I got destroyed on March 15. But my name was not on the ballot, so it is easy for someone else to win if you don’t have any known competitors,” Rabb said.
But Rabb did get his name on the ballot just over a month later, in the primary that was open to all registered Democrats in that district. He won in a three-person race.
Rabb is now pushing a measure that would require candidates to formally file with a party chairperson, pay a fee, and make an announcement video. Most critically, his bill would require a public meeting to be held in the district.
“There should be one minimum standard across all counties, across the commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” Rabb said. “How do we instill confidence that who is put on the ballot is not just endemic of insiderism but is a heartfelt and substantive search?”
He added that his bill “does not advantage one party over another.”
“This does not do anything but level the playing field [and] provide greater scrutiny and involvement in a process that needs to be overhauled,” he said.
The process of deciding a party’s candidate in a special election is already convoluted and confusing to voters, Thornburgh said. But the unique power given to Democratic district, or ward, leaders in Philadelphia makes the process even murkier.
“The Philadelphia suburban counties take a vote of the committee people. In Philadelphia county, that tends to not be the case. They don’t often have open votes,” he said. “A couple of insiders pick the nominee without consulting committee people in any kind of public or democratic way.”
Expensive, opaque — and unlikely to change
Ideally, special elections are a rarity. They are expensive — in Philadelphia, each costs taxpayers about $175,000 — and temporarily leave residents without an elected official.
They also effectively rob voters in districts with a strong party majority of a say in the process, Lewis noted.
“A lot of these districts are either heavy Republican or heavy Democrat, so a lot of these elections are truly decided in the primary,” Lewis said.
But Christopher Nicholas, a veteran Republican consultant, contends that special elections are just that — “special situations where you lean on the parties to find the nominees.”
“To me, the most important thing is getting that seat filled so people in that district have their equal representation in Harrisburg or Washington,” he said.
Nicholas said that challengers can always take on the winner of the special in the next primary election.
“Oftentimes, when you have special elections, all sorts of people run and everybody who loses complains,” Nicholas said. “At the next regularly scheduled election for that district, it is nothing. It is a big nothingburger.”
The state Democratic Party declined to comment on its special election process or possible reforms.
O’Neill, the GOP party spokesperson, said the Democratic process “is vastly different from ours.”
“We are not very fond of it,” O’Neill said of his counterpart’s system.
While Lewis has yet to formally introduce his measure, Rabb’s bill has been in the House State Government Committee since June 2019. And that’s where it will likely stay, according to one good-government advocate.
“Special election laws are sent to committee to die,” said Eric Epstein, a former General Assembly candidate. “[T]hat is because neither party is going to unilaterally disarm and make the process more open, transparent, or competitive. These are gerrymandered districts and both parties are going to preserve the status quo.”
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