State con­tests are over­shad­owed

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - OPINION - Low­man S. Henry Colum­nist

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.

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