The article was updated to reflect details on two other open vacancies. The article has been updated to correct the timing of the election after a writ has been issued.
Stacking the deck?
Those are the allegations being hurled at House Republican Leadership with regards to the special election to replace former House Representative Louise Bishop.
The long time representative was caught taking a $1,500 bribe in the Voter ID sting that claimed four African-American state representatives from Philadelphia. Attorney General Kathleen Kane refused to prosecute Bishop and the other representatives on the grounds of racism, but Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams was able to get plea deals from the representatives nabbed in the sting. As conditions to the plea agreements, the representatives had to resign from the House. Bishop dropped the racial allegations and resigned in the middle of December as part of her agreement.
The special election to fill the vacant seat will be held on March 15, 2016; weeks before the April 26th primary. This upcoming primary and election season is a presidential election year, which yields higher turnout for Democratic voters. Because of this, some are alleging that House Speaker Mike “Voter ID” Turzai is stacking the deck to inch closer to a two-thirds super majority. A special election held in March would yield a lower turnout than primary night, which would ultimately favor Republicans.
However, this is an unlikely scenario because Bishop’s former district, the 192nd, is located in West Philadelphia, an area that has a high density of African American voters, and has been held by Democrats since 1969, when the district was created.
Wanda Murren, a spokesperson for the Department of State, explains that the House Speaker has ten days from one’s resignation from the lower chamber to issue a “writ of election,” and the date of the special election will be held no less than 60 days after the writ is issued. The time between Louise Bishop’s resignation to the March 15th special election is approximately 82 days, plus or minus a day.
This leads to the second allegation that this is fiscally irresponsible because it wastes state and local resources. Candidates for any special election are handpicked by local party power brokers and after one of the candidates are elected, they will most likely to maintain that seat due to super-safe districts and unopposed elections.
Voters in the 192nd will be asked to vote in a presumably low turnout special election on March 15th, and that representative will serve out the reaming term. Five weeks later, the same voters will be asked to vote for the newly minted incumbent in an uncontested primary for a spot on the November ballot. Because of the way the election law operates, House Leaders can knock out two birds with one stone. The special election could be held on primary night, which would save voters the hassle of voting two times in a five week period – it’s extremely difficult to imagine that people will change their minds that quickly on the newly minted incumbent – and it will save the Commonwealth tens of thousands of dollars in resources.
According to Wanda Murren, the average special election since 2004 costs the state $66,930, but over the last several years, costs range between $33,000 and $65,000. Cost factors varies because of voting systems that are used, the size and turnout of the district and compensation for poll workers.
Election writs for former State Representative Tim Krieger, HD 57, and former State Senator Dominic Pileggi, SD 9, have not been issued. Representative Tim Krieger’s former seat is as safe as a seat can get where he won his previous election by a 70-30 margin, but Senator Pileggi’s former seat is in the more competitive Southeastern section of Pennsylvania. He won his 2012 election by a 55-45 margin.
A request for comment was sent to a House Republican spokesperson via email. Questions were asked about the timing of the elections, the motivations to schedule the election close to the primaries and if it is fiscally prudent for a district to have two elections within that time period. Our email request was not responded to.