On March 2, 2019, 202 votes decided Fred Keller was the Republican nominee and thus likely the next congressman from Pennsylvania’s 12th District (PA12). Sounds like a close race, right?
Well, when I said 202 people decided a race, I wasn’t talking about the margin, but rather the total voter pool. Two hundred and two people — all of them party insiders — were the only people allowed to pick their party’s nominee in this ruby red district.
Rep. Tom Marino’s January resignation from Congress triggered a May special election to replace him. Like all other states, Pennsylvania holds special elections open to all voters to choose among a Democrat, Republican, and others to represent them in Congress.
However, unlike most other states, the nominees aren’t chosen in an election open to all. Rather the parties hold nominating conventions open only to select party insiders with minuscule voter pools.
In contrast, 59,629 people voted in the 2018 PA12 Republican primary. That means for every one delegate who got to vote in 2019, there were 294 additional people who joined them to vote in the 2018 primary.
Party nominating conventions are a vestige of a more undemocratic time. They have survived because they operate out of sight when most voters aren’t paying attention to elections.
However, these contests are more common than you’d think. Once Keller, or his Democratic opponent, Marc Friedenberg, is sworn into the 116th Congress, 20 members will owe their initial election to this kind of contest. That number might sound small in a body of 435, but if these 20 were a state delegation, they would be the fifth largest.
Most of these members are people who played by the rules of their state governments and parties. They are not the ones to blame. It’s the system that needs fixing. Many of them won special elections to clean up after a truly corrupt predecessor.
But some things stand out from the list of convention-nominated members. One glaring thing is that party nominating conventions appear to be heavily biased to men. The current House is about 24 percent women, but of the members nominated by convention, only one is a woman.
Also, most of these members don’t face competitive general elections. Only one — Conor Lamb — flipped a district. Of the 19 who are already in office, the average margin of victory was 28 points. Only six had single-digit races. Therefore in most of these contests, the party nominating convention is basically a ticket to the House floor.
This is a huge problem to allow such a small segment of the population the ability to choose a member of Congress. But there is a solution.
Special elections to fill a vacancy can be done quick, cheap, and fair. Once a seat becomes vacant, states should be required to hold a “jungle” general (all the parties together) with ranked choice voting. This would require some form of majority support from their constituents, but eliminate time- and money-consuming runoffs. It also means members are seated as quickly as possible after a vacancy occurs as only one election is required.
This system of election should also apply when a nomination in a regularly scheduled election becomes void due to death, conviction, or choice. It would ensure the primary process isn’t rigged by outgoing members who wish to handpick their successor. And filing should open up again for all parties in those circumstances, to ensure the party in power can’t game the system to help their new candidate in an open seat.
As the House of Representatives works to improve our democracy through the For the People Act, it is imperative that we also address these party nominating conventions, as they are some of the most restrictive voting processes in the country. We must call on state governments, alongside the federal government and our parties, to relegate these antidemocratic processes to the history books.
David de la Fuente is a political analyst with Third Way, a center-left think tank.