State contests are overshadowed
There is an old television game show entitled “What’s My Line?” The game featured celebrity panelists questioning contestants to determine their occupations. Let’s play a Pennsylvania version of the show: Who are Otto Voit, Joe Torsella, John Brown, John Rafferty and Josh Shapiro? The answer is they are all currently running for statewide office in Pennsylvania.
Next question: Can you correctly identify the office for which they are running? The answers are Voit and Torsella are running for state treasurer; Rafferty and Shapiro for attorney general; and John Brown, along with incumbent Eugene DePasquale are running for auditor general.
When it comes to statewide offices in Pennsylvania it is either feast or famine. This year’s ballot will feature a veritable buffet for voters from President of the United States to U.S. Senate to the already mentioned three statewide constitutional offices. But next year statewide politics goes on a strict diet with only appellate court seats on the menu.
Voters respond accordingly. Turnout for the 2012 election topped 58 percent in Pennsylvania. The following year, 2013 sported only one statewide race — a seat on the state superior court — and voter turnout plummeted to less than 17 percent. As a side note, that 2013 judicial race was won by Victor Stabile who has the distinction of being the only Republican to win a statewide election in the past four years.
In 2012, President Barack Obama powered a sweep of statewide offices as Democrats were elected state treasurer, auditor general and attorney general. It was the first time since attorney general was made an elected position back in 1980 a Democrat won that office. Four years later, however, former Attorney General Kathleen Kane and former state Treasurer Rob McCord have been convicted of high crimes and await sentencing. Auditor General DePasquale, it should be noted, has served scandal free.
Corruption in these statewide constitutional or “row” offices is unfortunately not uncommon in Pennsylvania. Former state Treasurer Barbara Hafer was recently indicted for alleged improprieties dating to her time in office. Going back a bit further, former Auditor General Al Benedict and former state Treasurer R. Budd Dwyer were convicted of crimes. Benedict admitted his guilt, Budd Dwyer died proclaiming his innocence.
Of course it is impossible to know whether or not a candidate will be honest in advance, but it is clear the currently system has not provided voters with the opportunity to learn enough about the candidates. While tens of millions will be spent on this year’s U.S. Senate race between Pat Toomey and Katie McGinty, candidates for the row offices will likely be lucky to have a couple of million to present their credentials to voters.
It is unreasonable to expect voters to pay attention to who will be state treasurer, auditor general or attorney general in a year when a presidential campaign dominates the news. You aren’t going to see Otto Voit and Joe Torsella on the front page of the paper every day — in fact they’ll be lucky to be in the paper at all. And no television station is going to go live and lead from an appearance by these candidates. Many voters will go to the polls not even knowing their names, much less with a full understanding of their credentials and plans for the offices they seek.
This will continue to be the case for however long these offices are filled in a presidential election year. So here is a thought: move the election of these three offices to the year following the presidential election. In the four year cycle of elections the “off year” following presidential balloting is the lowest profile year. Only statewide appellate court seats are on the ballot, and — except for home rule counties — there aren’t even county commissioner races to capture voter interest.
By moving the election of the treasurer, auditor general and attorney general to the off year they would become the marque races. The news media could devote more attention to the candidates. Fundraising would be easier. Party activists could devote more time to their campaigns. Voters would be able to focus. They would go from being a side salad in the electoral buffet to the main course.
With a brighter spotlight on these offices we would hopefully end up with more voters at the polls, and fewer of the officials elected in jail.