The ink is barely dry on the 2023 Pennsylvania municipal primary and new pieces of legislation are being proposed in both chambers of the General Assembly to change them for the future.
Republican state senators Ryan Aument (R-Lancaster) and Frank Farry (R-Bucks) have circulated a co-sponsorship memoranda calling for supporters for legislation that ensures candidates win their primary election by a majority, rather than plurality, of voters.
In a large, competitive primary (see Philadelphia mayor), it is increasingly difficult for a candidate to reach 50 percent or higher. In the words of Aument and Farry, “this leads to voters feeling dissatisfied and unrepresented in general elections, especially in areas where there is one-party dominance, and the winner of the dominant party primary election is almost always the winner of the general election.”
They are calling for a runoff election system to identify a “clear consensus pick.” If no candidate receives at least 50% in a primary election, a second election would be held between the top two candidates. In this runoff (think Georgia Senate primary), the candidate with the most votes would be declared the winner.
Presently, there are 10 states that require a runoff in primary elections in this situation – Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and Vermont.
In the other chamber on the other side, Democratic House members Christopher Rabb (D-Philadelphia), Jared Solomon (D-Philadelphia) and Arvind Venkat (D-Allegheny) are proposing legislation to allow ranked choice voting in the Commonwealth.
They note that winning with less than 50 percent of the vote “does not truly reflect the will of the people. This has disenfranchised the electorate and created further divisions in our society. Our current method of plurality voting no longer serves the people.”
Ranked choice voting, or RCV, is an electoral system in which voters rank every candidate in order of preference instead of voting for just one candidate. Votes are redistributed according to preference until a candidate has over 50 percent of the vote in single-winner elections or more than the threshold percentage of votes in multi-winner elections.
The trio writes in their co-sponsorship memoranda that “(RCV) encourages candidates to seek the support of the majority of their constituents rather than a polarized base. The less divisive and negative a candidate is, the more likely they will have earned the majority support of the electorate.”
In the two most high-profile races in the 2023 primary, neither Cherelle Parker nor Sara Innamorato received a majority of the votes cast for their nomination.
With 98 percent of precincts reporting, Parker has received 32.42% of the Democratic vote for mayor of Philadelphia. Innamorato has garnered 37.58% of the Democratic vote for Allegheny County Executive with 97.8 percent of precincts reporting.
Even in a three-person race, the likelihood exists that the 50% threshold will not be reached. Take the race for Pennsylvania’s Superior Court, as Democrat Jill Beck earned 40.44 percent on her way to the nomination.
Rob Richie, president of the nonpartisan organization FairVote, is a champion for RCV.
“If your first-choice candidate doesn’t have a shot at winning, your vote simply counts for your highest-ranked candidate who does,” he said. “No more strategic voting or vote-splitting: If your favorite candidate has a chance, your vote stays with them. If not, your vote won’t play spoiler — it will simply count for your next-favorite choice.
“And fewer expensive, divisive runoffs: Instead of going back to the polls to express your preference between the finalists, your vote will just end up counting for the finalist ranked highest on your ballot,” Richie continued. “Even if a city opts to keep a runoff, voters can have better choices by using RCV to narrow a large field to four or five candidates and then using it again to pick a majority winner.”
As counties struggle to fund and staff elections as they stand now, it is hard to conceive of a change that could call for another primary election. As it takes nearly three weeks to officially certify Pennsylvania results after Election Day, any runoff may not be able to be held until late June or early July for elections conducted on the third Tuesday in May.