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April 6, 2013

John K. Manna: Why should local elections be based on party status?

NEW CASTLE — If you want to win a seat on New Castle City Council, don’t run as a Republican.

Nothing is impossible, but over the last 40 plus years, only a handful of Republicans have been elected to council. It’s not because Republican candidates have been of lesser quality than their Democratic counterparts.

Rather, the main reason they have a problem getting elected is the huge voter registration advantage that Democrats enjoy in the city.

To local political watchers, this is not news. Why I point this out, though, is the news out of New York City this week about the arrest of a state senator.

Democratic Sen. Malcolm Smith, a Republican councilman from Queens and two Republican party leaders were charged with wire fraud and bribery. Smith also faces an extortion charge.

According to the criminal complaint, the men were involved in a scheme to get Smith on the Republican primary ballot for New York City mayor. The complaint says bribes were to be paid to a majority of the five Republican leaders in the city to give Smith a spot on the ballot even though he is a Democrat.

In short, it was a scheme to fix the mayoral race in exchange for bribes.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Republican-turned-independent, reacted to the arrests this way:

“All of this comes out of the fact that we have partisan elections when cities aren’t partisan. And what happens is, only people that can go through whatever the majority party is, whether it’s Democrat here or Republican someplace else — they’re the only people that really can face the voters and have any meaningful chance.”

Election rules are different in Pennsylvania, meaning people registered in one party cannot be placed on the ballot of the opposing party. However, that’s not to suggest that some form of wheeling and dealing — dare I say corruption — cannot occur under Pennsylvania’s system of partisan local elections.

Like Bloomberg, I feel like a voice in the wilderness who has called for nonpartisan elections simply because local officials do not deal with partisan issues.

As city officials throughout the country have said over the years, there is no Republican or Democratic way to fix a pothole. Nor to fix anything else.

Because New Castle is heavily Democratic, few Republicans run because they know their chances are slim to get elected. The same is true in areas dominated by the Republican Party.

As a result, the current system deprives voters the opportunity to consider the best possible field of candidates. And no doubt it has a negative effect on voter participation.

This is a system that begs for reform, and it would be up to the state Legislature to do something about it. One question I would like any state legislator to answer is this: Should only a certain few have any meaningful chance of being elected?

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