Pa. Voter Guide: Nov. 2, 2021
Here’s what to know about the Nov. 2 election and how to make your voice heard, whether you’re planning to vote in person or by mail.
Still feeling the electoral hangover from 2020? We don’t blame you, but it’s officially time to get back out there.
Nov. 2 is election day in Pennsylvania.
» LIVE UPDATES: Follow our live coverage of the 2021 election
Philadelphia will elect a district attorney, city controller, and a very long list of judges. There are also plenty of local races to decide in Philly’s suburbs. Additionally, Philadelphia voters will get a say on four ballot questions, including letting legislators in Harrisburg know if you favor legalizing marijuana.
Voter turnout tends to dip during odd-numbered election years, particularly in Pennsylvania where statewide and federal races all happen during even-numbered years. In the May primary, turnout in Philadelphia was 21%. Still, that doesn’t mean these elections aren’t important.
Here’s what to know about the Nov. 2 election and how to make your voice heard, whether you’re planning to vote in person or by mail.
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Why should I vote?
There’s no law that says you have to vote, but voting is a key part of participating in a democracy. It’s a civic duty that could shape the future for generations. Plus, by not voting you potentially give more power to those with views different than your own.
This year a lot of judges are on the ballot as well as Philadelphia district attorney candidates with very different criminal justice philosophies. While statewide and federal elections get a lot of the attention, the truth is, most residents of Philadelphia are far more likely to come into contact with a judge — think Traffic Court or jury duty.
The decisions handed down by the Commonwealth, Superior, and Supreme Courts impact everyday Pennsylvanians “probably more so than a legislator,” said Deborah Gross, president of advocacy organization Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts.
“The judges in these positions really rule on every aspect of a person’s or business’ life,” Gross added.
In the past few years, these higher courts have been asked to settle major disputes between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration and the Republican-controlled legislature, including the state’s handling of the pandemic, how it runs elections, and more.
If a Republican wins the governorship in 2022 and the GOP maintains control of the legislature, these courts will likely take on an even more prominent role.
Plus, the more people that vote, the more elected offices start to actually look like the communities they represent. The voters are the boss — and the way to give politicians and local officials direction is by using your ballot.
How do I check my registration status?
💻 You can check your voter registration status on the state’s website by entering your name, license number, or PennDot ID.
☎️ You can also call 1-877-VOTESPA or your county’s election officials.
When is the election?
📅 The municipal election will be held Tuesday, Nov. 2.
When are polls open?
🕖 Polls are open from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. on Nov. 2, Election Day. As long as you make it in line by 8 p.m., you’ll be able to vote.
Where is my polling place?
💻 If you’re planning to vote in person on Nov. 2, you can find your polling place on the Department of State’s website, where you’ll need to enter your county, city, and street. Philadelphia also has its own lookup tool.
We encourage you to check your polling place before heading out to vote, as it may not be the same one you’ve used in the past.
☎️ You can also call your county’s elections officials. A list of phone numbers can be found on the Department of State’s website.
When and how do I return my mail ballot?
📅 Completed ballots have to be received by your county elections office by 8 p.m. on Nov. 2.
✉️ You can send your ballot back to their county’s election officials by mail. Note: If you mail your ballot, it still has to be received by Nov. 2. Postmarks don’t count.
🚶 You can also hand deliver ballots to your county elections office. Philly voters can also head to the County Board of Elections office in City Hall (Room 140), request a mail ballot there, fill it out, and hand it back on the spot.
📮 In Philadelphia, there are also 16 drop boxes across the city where you can return your mail ballot.
Do I have to do anything special before dropping off my mail ballot?
Yes. It is very important that you seal your ballot in the smaller inner “secrecy envelope” (it says “Official Election Ballot.”) Put that envelope in the outer return envelope and make sure to sign and date the voter’s declaration.
What is a naked ballot?
If you’re going the mail route, it will be important to make sure you’re sending the ballot back properly. A naked ballot is a mail ballot that a voter submits without an inner “secrecy envelope.”
Pennsylvania uses a two-envelope system: Filled-out ballots go first inside a blank, anonymous secrecy envelope, and then into the return envelope that is addressed to the county elections office and has the voter’s signature and information. If voters place the ballot directly into the return envelope, it’s “naked.”
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled that naked ballots must be rejected under state law, meaning those votes will not be counted.
How do I check the status of my ballot?
💻 You can check on the status of your mail ballot on the Department of State’s website by entering your name, date of birth, and county.
Who’s on the ballot in Philadelphia?
District attorney (choose one)
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s office is the largest prosecutor’s office in Pennsylvania and a top ticket race in the city this year.
In a ho-hum year for local races, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner’s bid for a second term has been the most-watched on the ballot.
Krasner, a Democrat, is challenged by Chuck Peruto, a leading defense lawyer and former Democrat who supported Krasner in 2017 but became disillusioned by his policies. There is no dispute that Krasner is a leader among a new breed of progressive-minded city prosecutors. He has drawn the ire of the police union and former prosecutors who think he has put too much focus on undoing unjust convictions by his predecessors and not enough on the rising rates of some crimes.
He easily defeated a former assistant district attorney, Carlos Vega, in the primary. Peruto has trailed in campaign money and attention and faces a 7-to-1 Democratic registration disadvantage. Krasner has refused to debate Peruto.
City controller (choose one)
The city controller is the city’s chief auditor and performs duties independently of the mayor and city council. Philadelphia Controller Rebecca Rhynhart is running unopposed and will be the only candidate on the ballot as she seeks a second term. Rhynhart unseated an incumbent in 2017 to become the city’s fiscal watchdog, responsible for auditing the city and school district.
Rebecca Rhynhart (uncontested)
There is no Republican candidate on the ballot
Justice of the Supreme Court (choose one)
Pennsylvania’s highest court. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania is made up of seven members. A seat on Pennsylvania’s highest court is the big prize in this year’s statewide elections.
Democrats have a 5-2 majority, and Republican Justice Thomas Saylor is stepping down at the end of the year after he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 75. So the balance of power isn’t at stake; the best Republicans can do is hold onto Saylor’s seat on the bench.
Republican Kevin Brobson, of Dauphin County, is president judge of the Commonwealth Court. He was first elected to the intermediate appellate court in 2009 and won a retention election in 2019.
Democrat Maria McLaughlin is a Superior Court judge from Philadelphia. She was elected to the appellate court in 2017, and previously was a Common Pleas Court judge. Before that, McLaughlin served as an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia.
Maria McLaughlin: McLaughlin has been serving on Superior Court since 2018. Before that, she served as a judge in Philadelphia’s family court and as an assistant district attorney. As a district attorney, McLaughlin worked in the child support area, prosecuting people who were delinquent. She later became a chief assistant district attorney supervising the unit. The Pennsylvania Bar Association rated McLaughlin highly recommended, its top designation. Read her answers to the PBA questionnaire here.
Kevin Brobson: Brobson has been a Commonwealth Court judge since 2010. Previously, he worked for the Harrisburg law firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney. There he handled commercial and insurance litigation in both state and federal courts. The Pennsylvania Bar Association rated Brobson highly recommended. Read his answers to the PBA questionnaire here.
» READ MORE: Pennsylvania elects most judges. Here’s how the process works.
Which party has control of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court?
Democrats have a 5-2 majority on the court — an advantage they’ve held since they won three open seats in 2015.
What are some high-profile decisions by the Pa. Supreme Court in recent years?
The high court made a splash in 2018 when it threw out Pennsylvania’s congressional map, ruling that it was an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander designed to benefit Republicans. The court imposed a new map, helping Democrats pick up seats in Congress.
In 2020, the court heard multiple election-related cases and ruled on disputes arising from the Wolf administration’s coronavirus restrictions. On the docket for the upcoming year is a case in which Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers are trying to reverse a decades-old Pennsylvania court decision banning the use of state Medicaid dollars to pay for abortions.
» READ MORE: Abortion is a key issue for Pa. Democrats, and it could supercharge the 2022 midterms.
Judge of the Superior Court (choose one)
The Superior and Commonwealth Courts are the state’s intermediary appellate courts — hearing the first appeals of cases before they can be appealed to the Supreme Court. There are 15 Superior Court judges hearing more than 8,000 cases a year, making it the busiest of the three appellate courts. The judges are chosen in statewide elections, and serve 10-year terms before coming up for retention. (Vote for one.)
Often, the cases Superior Court handles do not involve public figures, but there are exceptions. It denied convicted child molester and former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky’s appeal for a new trial, and upheld Bill Cosby’s sexual assault conviction before it was overturned by the Supreme Court.
There is one seat open on Superior Court because Republican Judge Susan Gantman is retiring.
Timika Lane: Lane has served on Common Pleas Court in Philadelphia since 2014. Prior to her term, she served as chief counsel to State Sen. Anthony Williams (D., Philadelphia) and as the Democratic executive director of the Senate State Government Committee. Prior to that, Lane served as a trial attorney with the Defender Association of Philadelphia, which represents defendants too poor to hire a lawyer. The Pennsylvania Bar Association rated Lane recommended. Read her answers to the PBA questionnaire here.
Megan Sullivan: Sullivan has served as a deputy attorney general since 2017. Prior to joining the attorney general’s office, Sullivan worked as an attorney for Chester County, West Chester University, and two private firms. In her 20 years as an attorney, Sullivan has handled both criminal and civil matters. With the attorney general’s office, she investigates and prosecutes insurance fraud. The Pennsylvania Bar Association rated Sullivan recommended. Read her answers to the PBA questionnaire here.
Judge of the Commonwealth Court (vote for up to two)
In addition to hearing appeals from lower courts, the Commonwealth Court is also usually responsible for hearing appeals or, in some cases, the trials involving state government and elections. There are nine Commonwealth Court judges. Candidates on the ballot are the top two vote-getters from each party’s primary. In recent weeks, it has been the venue for lawsuits filed by State Senate Democrats and Attorney General Josh Shapiro to stop a Republican-led investigation of the state’s last two elections. Several Republican legislators have also filed a suit in the court opposing a state law expanding mail voting.
Judges serve initial 10-year terms, then face a retention vote, for another 10 years. These retention votes, in which voters vote simply whether someone should stay office, are almost always won by the incumbent judges, who do not face an actual opponent.
Now, there are two seats open on Commonwealth Court, and the top vote-getters of the four candidates will secure spots on the bench.
Lori Dumas: Dumas has served as a Philadelphia Common Pleas judge since 2002. As a Common Pleas judge, she has heard family, criminal, and civil cases. She is recommended by the Pennsylvania Bar Association. Read her answers to the PBA questionnaire here.
David Lee Spurgeon: Spurgeon has served as an Allegheny County Common Pleas judge since 2016. Prior to his term, Spurgeon worked as a prosecutor in Allegheny County. As a judge, Spurgeon presides over family law cases. He is highly recommended by the Pennsylvania Bar Association. Read his answers to the PBA questionnaire here.
Drew Crompton: Crompton currently serves on Commonwealth Court as an appointee. He must be elected to keep his seat. Before being appointed to the court by Wolf, a Democrat, Crompton served as chief of staff and counsel to former state Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson). He was also general counsel to the Senate Republican Caucus. As a Commonwealth Court judge, Crompton has heard workers’ compensation and unemployment cases as well as zoning, election, and other governmental disputes. He is recommended by the Pennsylvania Bar Association. Read his answers to the PBA questionnaire here.
Stacy Sorokes Wallace: Wallace currently practices at her own firm, Stacy Wallace Law, in Bradford. Recently, she has handled estate planning and trust administration. She is the president of the McKean County Bar Association. She is not recommended by the Pennsylvania Bar Association. The PBA found that while the community holds Wallace in high regard, she “lacks the depth and breadth of experience and preparation necessary” to be a judge on the Commonwealth Court. Read her answers to the PBA questionnaire here.
Judge of the Court of Common Pleas (vote for up to 12)
The Court of Common Pleas handles major civil and criminal cases as the trial court of general jurisdiction for a county.
In Philadelphia, with only 12 candidates on the list, all are basically guaranteed a seat. The three who didn’t run in the primary were handpicked by the Philadelphia Democratic Party after three incumbent judges retired after the May primary passed. Those have been dubbed “magic seats” or “golden tickets” in the world of Philadelphia judicial elections.
» READ MORE: ‘Magic seats’ create new Philly judges who don’t even have to campaign and are guaranteed a seat. Here’s how it works.
Nick Kamau is a trial lawyer and partner at Legis Group LLC. The Wynnefield resident got his law degree at Howard University and started his legal career as a public defender in Philadelphia. He served as Democratic counsel for a key Congressional oversight committee. Highly recommended by the Philadelphia Bar Association
Wendi Barish is senior deputy general counsel at the Philadelphia Housing Authority. Earlier in her career she worked in employment law, representing employees alleging discrimination and later, for employers and municipalities. She’s a resident of Old City. Recommended by the Philadelphia Bar Association
Cateria R. McCabe a judge in the Juvenile Branch of Family Court, since she was appointed by Wolf in 2019. She hears dependency cases of abused, neglected or truant children. Immediately prior to her appointment to the bench in 2019, she was an arraignment court magistrate. She also worked at the SeniorLAW Center, which provides low-cost legal services to older Pennsylvanians, and as a city solicitor. Recommended by the Philadelphia Bar Association
Betsy Wahl: Wahl has been a hearing officer in juvenile cases, determining outcomes for more than 20 years. Previously, she was a public defender for juvenile and adult criminal court and an adjunct professor at Temple University and Cabrini College. Recommended by the Philadelphia Bar Association
Chris Hall, an attorney at Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP, chairs the white collar defense and government investigations practice. He previously worked as an assistant U.S. attorney in Philadelphia, who handled cases including prosecuting violators of the Clean Water Act and predatory lenders. Highly recommended by the Philadelphia Bar Association
Michele Hangley is an attorney for state and local election officials, who helped defend against challenges to the 2020 presidential election in the city. Hangley is a single mother of a middle-school student, who lives in South Philadelphia. Highly recommended by the Philadelphia Bar Association
Craig Levin is a trial lawyer and senior partner at the Center City Philadelphia law firm, Friedman & Levin Associates. A Center City resident, Levin also chairs the Philadelphia Democratic Party’s legal department. He is a former Democratic committeeperson in the Eighth Ward in Center City. Recommended by the Philadelphia Bar Association
Daniel R. Sulman has been a judge on the Court of Common Pleas, serving in the Family Division twice. He was appointed by Wolf in 2016 but lost when he ran to keep the seat in the 2017 primary. Wolf appointed him again to fill a vacancy in 2019. The Mount Airy native is running to secure a full term. Recommended by the Philadelphia Bar Association
Monica Gibbs: Gibbs did not run in the primary but secured one of the “magic seats.” She’s an assistant general counsel at the Delaware River Port Authority, where she handles its negotiations with unions. She’s a Temple graduate and Philly native who previously worked as a public defender. Did not submit for a recommendation from the Philadelphia Bar Association.
Leanne L Litwin: Another “magic seat” recipient, Litwin is a longtime trial lawyer with her own practice in Philadelphia. She’s secretary of the criminal justice section of the Philadelphia Bar Association and a past vice chair of the state Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys. Did not submit for a recommendation from the Philadelphia Bar Association.
Mark J. Moore was appointed by Wolf to fill a vacancy to the Court of Common Pleas in 2020. Moore ran unsuccessfully for judge in this year’s primary with the party’s backing but is on the ballot as one of three magic seats. He worked at Allstate, defending the company’s policyholders in civil lawsuits. Before that he spent 13 years as an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia. Highly recommended by the Philadelphia Bar Association
John P Sabatina Jr., handpicked for a magic seat, has been a state senator since 2015, when he replaced Mike Stack who became lieutenant governor. He’s part of a politically powerful Democratic family in the city. He was a district attorney under former District Attorney Lynne Abraham. If Sabatina wins a judicial seat in November, he would resign from the state Senate in January, which would prompt a special election. His father, ward leader John P. Sabatina Sr., is considering a candidacy in any special election. Did not submit for a recommendation from the Philadelphia Bar Association.
There is no Republican candidate on the ballot
Judge of the Municipal Court (vote for up to five)
More than 500 judges preside over entry-level courts across the state, known as Municipal Court in Philadelphia. They handle minor civil, traffic and criminal cases. In Philadelphia, 27 judges hear trials for some misdemeanors, summary offenses and felonies. With only five candidates on the list, all are basically guaranteed a seat, including two who did not run in the primary but were selected by the Democratic Party for “magic seats.”
Greg Yorgey-Girdy is a lawyer at Potter Anderson, a firm specializing in corporate litigation and conflict resolution. Yorgey-Girdy is a former assistant city solicitor in Philadelphia. He lives in South Philadelphia with his husband and their three children. If elected, he’d be the first openly gay man elected to judge of Philadelphia’s Municipal Court. Recommended by the Philadelphia Bar Association
Michael C. Lambert worked as a Philadelphia public defender before founding his own law firm, where he specializes in personal injury, family cases, and criminal litigation. He’s endorsed by many of the city’s labor unions as well as two state representatives and three members of City Council. Specifically not recommended by the Philadelphia Bar Association.
George Twardy landed on the Court of Common Pleas last year thanks to an appointment by Wolf. He used to be a Republican and in that previous political life was a former Haverford Township commissioner who lost reelection in 2005 amid a corruption scandal. Twardy was asked to resign as the local GOP leader following an admission to a grand jury that he orchestrated land sale deals for political gain. After moving to Philadelphia, Twardy changed parties, and built goodwill with the city’s Democratic establishment, which endorsed him in the May 18 primary. Recommended by the Philadelphia Bar Association
Christian A DiCicco, a onetime aide to Vincent Fumo, the former state senator and convicted felon, originally filed for the May primary as a candidate for a Common Pleas judgeship but then withdrew. The son of a former city councilperson, he was later picked by the Democratic Party to fill one of the “magic seats.” A former deputy general counsel for the State Senate, DiCicco once ran Fumo’s embattled nonprofit. He’s currently a private bankruptcy attorney. Did not submit for a recommendation from the Philadelphia Bar Association.
Fran McCloskey also registered to be a candidate for the May primary only to withdraw before the election. McCloskey received the third “magic seat” from the Democratic Party in the election for Municipal Court. He’s been an attorney at McCullough McLaughlin & Mincarelli since 2015. Before that he worked at the District Attorney’s Office of Philadelphia. Recommended by the Philadelphia Bar Association
There are no Republican candidates on the ballot
Judges in Pennsylvania are elected and serve six- or 10-year terms before coming up for retention. This year, 24 sitting judges are up for retention, which is simply a “yes” or “no” vote on the ballot, without their party affiliation listed. Judges come up for retention every 10 years until the mandatory retirement age of 75. The Philadelphia Bar Association, in addition to recommending candidates for judge, recommends whether judges should be retained here.
Judge of election and inspector of election
In Pennsylvania, the three main poll workers in a precinct — the judge of elections, a majority-party inspector, and a minority-party inspector — are elected every four years.
There are hundreds of Democratic candidates for judge and inspector of elections, and they differ based on your ward and division. Find your candidates in the below document.
There are dozens of Republican candidates for judge and inspector of elections, and they differ based on your ward and division. Find your candidates in the below document.
» DETAILS: judges of elections
Who’s on the ballot in Chester, Montgomery, Delaware, and Bucks Counties?
There are lots of local races happening in Philadelphia’s collar counties, including what have become some highly contentious school board races around the country.
Bucks County: District attorney, sheriff, prothonotary, recorder of deeds, controller, court of common pleas, magisterial district court, municipal and school board offices, judge of elections, and inspector of elections. Democrats in the collar counties have had sweeping successes in recent elections. The Bucks County district attorney is the sole remaining Republican countywide row officer. Democrats hope the race to oust him becomes a model for winning competitive races in next year’s midterm elections. If he wins, it would energize Republicans as they seek to take control of Congress, retain their majorities in the state legislature, and win back the governor’s mansion in 2022. More information can be found on Bucks County’s website.
Chester County: Treasurer, controller, clerk of courts, coroner, common pleas court, magisterial district court, municipal and school board offices, judge of elections, and inspector of elections. Sample ballots can be found on Chester County’s website.
Delaware County: County council, sheriff, controller, register of wills, common pleas court, magisterial district courts, municipal and school board offices, judge of elections, and inspector of elections. Sample ballots can be found on Delaware County’s website.
Montgomery County: Court of common pleas, magisterial district court, jury commissioner, municipal and school board offices, judge of elections, and inspector of elections. Sample ballots can be found on Montgomery County’s website.
What else is going on in the region?
New Jersey has a governor’s election. Gov. Phil Murphy is seeking a second term. Murphy, 64, is campaigning on legislative actions, raising the minimum wage and passing a millionaire’s tax, as well as on his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Polls have shown that registered voters generally approve of his crisis response, particularly in terms of his decisions regarding masking and vaccines.
A former Goldman Sachs executive, Murphy would be the state’s first Democratic governor in decades to be reelected.
His opponent, Jack Ciattarelli, is campaigning on lowering the state’s property taxes, revamping the school funding formula and addressing other cost-of-living issues. A businessman and former state assemblyman, the 59-year-old Ciattarelli has also attacked Murphy’s handling of the pandemic, saying his business restrictions gutted the state’s economy. He has also said Murphy’s decision to send COVID patients back into their long-term care homes cost lives. Murphy has said the administration mandated that such patients be separated.
Voters in Philadelphia this year are asked to answer four ballot questions, three which would result in immediate changes in how the city government functions and a fourth on marijuana legalization, which is meant to send a message to legislators in Harrisburg.
Think of this one like a really big petition being circulated by Philadelphia City Council on the ballot. It won’t change anything immediately, but it will take the pulse of the electorate and — Council hopes — pressure Harrisburg to advance a bill to legalize recreational use of cannabis.
The Office of Fleet Services oversees some 6,000 city vehicles and trucks as it has since Ed Rendell created it as mayor in 1992. This would make the department permanent.
This would be a big change to hiring in city government, one that advocates say could increase diversity in the municipal workforce. The city’s current hiring rules require applicants to take a test. Only the two highest-scoring candidates get an interview in a department. Eliminating that rule would reduce the reliance on standardized tests and allow the city to decide how many finalists departments could interview for each position.
The fourth ballot question asks Philadelphia voters to require about $25 million earmarked for the general fund to go to the city’s Housing Trust Fund. Advocates say this will allow the city to expand access to affordable housing and address the city’s housing crisis. Those against, including Mayor Jim Kenney, say the mandated funding would limit the city’s ability to manage its general funds and argue it’s better to incentivize developers to pay more into the fund.
This article contains information from the State Department of State, Philadelphia Commissioners Office, Spotlight PA’s election guide and the Committee of Seventy. Staff writers Jonathan Lai, Andrew Seidman, Pat Madej, Laura McCrystal, Allison Steele, and Chris Brennan contributed reporting.