Pa. special elections mean voters get to vote for U.S. House twice, sometimes for different candidates
Some people can vote for the same candidate twice for the U.S. House in November. Others can vote for two candidates from the same party for the U.S. House. Confused? We break it down.
Every politician wants your vote. But some Pennsylvania congressional candidates want two of them.
That's right. On Nov. 6, hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania voters will get to vote two times in U.S. House races.
It's because two Pennsylvania seats in the House are empty, and Gov. Wolf has scheduled a special election to fill them as required by law. It coincides with Election Day, meaning voters in the affected districts will be choosing a representative to serve the two-year term from 2019 through 2021 as well as a term of less than two months, from November to January.
Normally, that wouldn't be too confusing. You'd have the same candidates running in both the general and special election, just voting to tack on a few weeks to the regular term.
But there's a twist this time around: Pennsylvania has a new congressional map.
This time, the special elections are to fill seats under the old boundaries, and the general election is to fill seats under the new ones. So in some cases voters will be casting ballots for the same set of candidates twice, while other voters will be presented with two different slates of candidates — in other words, voting in two districts.
The special elections are to fill seats under the old boundaries until January. So in some cases voters will be casting ballots for one set of candidates for the short terms, and a different set for the standard two-year terms.
"That's a pain in the ass," said David Nickerson, a political science professor at Temple University whose work focuses on political behavior and voting.
But he said it might not end up being a huge problem: "The good news is most people vote a straight ticket, so it won't make much of a difference."
Why the special elections are taking place Nov. 6
Two of Pennsylvania's 18 congressmen — all 18 were men — resigned earlier this year, triggering special elections.
In Pennsylvania, the governor has 10 days after a vacancy occurs to set an election date that must be at least 60 days out.
In April, Pat Meehan resigned after the New York Times reported he had secretly used taxpayer funds to settle a sexual harassment accusation from a former aide. Meehan, a Republican, represented Pennsylvania's Seventh Congressional District, notorious for its irregular shape and widely considered an egregious example of partisan gerrymandering. It includes most of Delaware County and stretches across parts of Chester, Montgomery, Berks, and Lancaster Counties.
The next month, Charlie Dent resigned from his seat in the 15th Congressional District, which includes all of Lehigh County and portions of Berks, Dauphin, Lebanon, and Northampton Counties. Dent, a moderate Republican and a vocal critic of President Trump, joined CNN as a political commentator.
Gov. Wolf scheduled the special elections for Nov. 6, saving counties the cost of holding separate elections. Special election winners are generally sworn in within days of their victory; the winners of the general election begin new two-year terms in January.
The twist this year: New congressional districts
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned the state's congressional map in January, declaring it an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander designed to favor Republicans. It imposed a new map, with many districts taking on very different shapes.
The decision sparked a nasty legal and political fight. Democrats hailed the decision as a win for representative democracy; Republicans saw judicial overreach, saying the court was creating confusion and usurping legislative power.
Meehan's old Seventh Congressional District is now split among Districts 1, 4, 5, 6, 9, and 11. Dent's old 15th Congressional District is now split among Districts 7, 9, and 10.
General-election candidates also are running in the special elections
A little more than half the voters in the old Seventh Congressional District are now in the new Fifth Congressional District, which includes Delaware County and a portion of South Philadelphia. Republican Pearl Kim and Democrat Mary Gay Scanlon are competing for both, primarily the new Fifth District but also in the old Seventh District special election.
The concept of voting twice for the same candidate is alien to voters, said Gabby Richards, spokesperson for Scanlon's campaign. "That confuses people, because we're taught to think that is illegal, it's wrong," she said. "But in this situation, it's actually kind of part of our civic duty."
And in the Lehigh Valley, more than 70 percent of voters in the old 15th Congressional District are now in the new Seventh Congressional District. Republican Marty Nothstein, Democrat Susan Wild, and Libertarian Tim Silfies are running in both the Seventh District general election and the old 15th District special election.
A candidate who wins both the two-year term and the short one would get a bump up in seniority compared with other incoming lawmakers.
How to make things simple for voters: Emphasize the party
Assuming trends continue, party would be more important to voters than the names on the ballot, Nickerson said.
"Now that both Republicans and Democrats have pretty clear ideological brands, it doesn't make a lot of sense to say, 'I want the liberal candidate at the county level and the conservative candidate at the state level,'" he said. "You tend to have an ideological preference."
And in Pennsylvania, voters can press a single button to vote for a straight party ticket.
Where to turn to learn more
The Inquirer and Daily News have created a Voters Guide to help you make sense of all the races. Enter your address and see all the races on your ballot.
Go here for more information about the Fifth Congressional District race between Pearl Kim and Mary Gay Scanlon and here for more on the Seventh Congressional District race among Marty Nothstein, Susan Wild, and Tim Silfies.