This year, there are more than 350,000 Pennsylvania citizens who are not represented in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.
This is not a punishment for doing something wrong. It's a result of lawmakers refusing to do something right, something that 87 percent of Pennsylvania voters want while only 12 percent oppose, according to Democracy Rising's 2012 Public Integrity Poll.
These unrepresented citizens just happen to live in the House districts where their representatives were elected in 2010 and immediately began running for a different office in 2011.
All ran for local office and were elected. They are:
- Former Rep. Chelsa Wagner, Allegheny, elected county controller.
- Former Rep. Douglas Reichley, Lehigh, elected common pleas judge.
- Former Rep. Josh Shapiro, Montgomery, elected county commissioner.
- Former Rep. Kenyatta Johnson, Philadelphia, elected to city council.
- Former Rep. Dennis O'Brien, Philadelphia, elected to city council.
- Former Rep. Jewell Williams, Philadelphia, elected sheriff.
It's not as though they didn't know when they asked voters to elect them in 2010 that they didn't really want to serve in the House. They just didn't want to be without a tax-funded job while they ran for something else. Nor did they want to be unemployed if they lost the election for local office.
This year, something even worse is happening.
This year, two state representatives are running for two offices at the same time.
- Rep. John Maher, Allegheny, running for both the House and for auditor general.
- Rep. Eugene DePasquale, York, running for both the House and for auditor general.
Both will win their House seats since neither has an opponent in the primary or the general elections. Maher has a primary opponent for auditor general; DePasquale does not.
Only if Maher loses the primary election for auditor general and DePasquale loses the general election for auditor general can taxpayers avoid a special election.
If Maher wins the primary, a special election is guaranteed since either he or DePasquale will win the auditor general's race.
This is not what voters want.
By 87 percent to 12 percent, voters want to require elected officials to resign from their current office as soon as they decide to seek a different office. It's called "resign to run," and there are many good reasons for it.
Taxpayer subsidy of political campaigns. As mentioned above, holding one public office while running for another provides a taxpayer subsidy of the incumbents' political campaigns.
It is unfair both to taxpayers and to opponents who do not have a public platform to keep their names in front of voters and who do not have the same access to campaign cash as incumbents do.
Electoral contract. Running for one office from another also breaks the implied contract between candidates and voters: "Elect me to a job with a two-year (or four-year term), and I'll serve out the term." Candidates do not tell voters, "Elect me to this job until my political ambition takes me to an office I want more."
Maybe they should.
Special elections. When a vacancy occurs in the legislature, the presiding officer of the House or Senate can call a special election to fill the seat so that citizens are not without representation any longer than necessary.
If special elections can be held at the same time as primary or general elections, the cost is minimal. But waiting five or six months for an election to roll around obviously extends the time citizens are without representation.
The alternative of holding special elections apart from regularly scheduled election days is expensive. Costs are hard to estimate but a ballpark estimate is $100,000 to $150,000 per seat.
A resign-to-run law does not entirely prevent special elections, but it does guarantee that the seat will be available for a special election much sooner.
For example, if the six lawmakers elected to local office had resigned in early 2011 when they decided to seek local office, those special elections could have been held last year, when legislative elections were not scheduled, instead of this year, when the politics of legislative election years are far more raw and partisan.
More to the point, the six knew when they ran in 2010 that they would not be serving their full term in the House if they could help it. They should have let someone else run for the House in 2010 to prevent disadvantaging their constituents as they have.
This year, the year of legislative redistricting, creates yet another problem for unrepresented citizens. Speaker of the House Sam Smith, Jefferson, has filed a federal lawsuit in which he contends that he cannot call special elections because the existing House seats are unconstitutional.
He claims he must wait until new legislative districts are made final.
Others, including House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, have urged the speaker to hold the special elections on April 24.
Two Philadelphia lawyers have filed a lawsuit trying to compel the speaker to do so.
They contend that since the Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out the new redistricting plan, the special elections should take place using the old district lines.
When elected officials run for a different office, or two offices simultaneously, they cannot provide constituents with the undivided attention they have every right to expect.
The only course that is honorable and that doesn't give the back of the hand to voters, taxpayers, and citizens is for elected officials to stay in the office to which they are elected until their term expires, then figure out what to do next.
- Why can't 87 percent of Pennsylvania voters get the perfectly reasonable resign-to-run law they want?
- Whose government is it, anyway?
Tim Potts is executive director of Democracy Rising PA. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.