It’s Easier to Vote for PA Legislators Than You Think

Marc Stier |

Pennsylvania has a very long ballot. And voters often know little about the candidates for representative or senator in the General Assembly, which leads many of them not to vote at all in these races.

Recent trends in our politics—trends we should all regret—does make voting for state legislative candidates a lot easier than it was.

When I was a young man in the twentieth century, I studied the candidates in depth—from the top of the ticket to state legislators and local officials—looking at their policy positions and records on a number of different issues.

That kind of research was necessary because the usual shorthand voters use to choose legislative candidates—political party—didn’t necessarily tell me everything I needed to know about the candidates. On average, Democrats and Republicans were not as far apart from one another ideologically as they are today. Votes on the floor of state legislatures rarely pit one party entirely against the other. Democrats tended to be more liberal than Republicans, and I’ve always been on the left side of the political spectrum. But in my hometown of Liberty, New York, I sometimes voted for moderate or liberal Republican state legislators. I even voted for liberal Republican US senators such as Jacob Javits and Charles Goodell.

In addition, individual legislators could be highly influential at that time. committees were strong and party leaders deferred to them. Because a leading member of committee, even if he or she were in the minority, could initiate legislation that would be considered and passed by committee and then come to the floor for a vote, it was important to me that our local Republican state legislators were influential and progressive leaders on health care, for example.

Sadly, all this has changed. Both legislators and voters are now ideologically sorted. Almost all liberals are Democrats, and almost all conservatives are Republicans. Most votes in state legislatures set one party against another. And the majority party leaders are all-powerful. The Republicans who control both houses of our General Assembly never allow a bill to come to the floor that is not supported by a majority of their caucus. Essentially, legislation that has support from a majority of a legislative body is often blocked because the majority party in the legislature will not let it come to the floor.

It has long been clear that a majority of members of the Pennsylvania House and Senate are ready to vote for a severance tax on natural gas drilling and for an increase in the minimum wage to at least $12 an hour. But the Republican majority will not allow floor votes on these issues.

And there are many other issues, such as higher education funding and reforms in our tax system that would close corporate tax loopholes or make our income tax fairer, where Democrats and Republicans might find some compromise acceptable to a majority of members. But because party leaders won’t allow such legislation to even come to the floor, these negotiations never take place.

So, voting for state representative and senator in Pennsylvania is easy. You should choose on the basis of the political parties’ positions.

So, if you think the 2020 election was fraudulent, want to limit or ban abortions in Pennsylvania, favor restrictions on voting, think that most multi-national corporations should continue to pay zero in corporate taxes, oppose a severance tax, don’t want to make our personal income tax more progressive, want to limit efforts to make funding of K-12 schools more equal, and oppose reductions in the cost of tuition for higher education you should vote for a Republican for state legislator. If these are your positions, it doesn’t matter if the Democratic candidate in your district agrees with you on an or all of these issues. Any Democratic legislator is going to vote to put the Democrats in charge of the General Assembly, and Democratic control means that public policies you oppose will be more likely to be adopted.

And if you take the opposite view on these issues, you should vote for a Democrat for representative or senator in the General Assembly. Again, it doesn’t matter if the Republican candidates in your district say they agree with you on some issues. Any Republican legislator is going to put the Republicans in charge of the General Assembly, and Republican control means legislation embodying policies you support will never see the light of day.

There are reforms that might return us to the days when Democrats and Republicans worked together for the common good in Harrisburg. But until that time comes, voting for members of the General Assembly is easy. Regardless of individual legislators’ positions on important issues, vote for the party that is best aligned with your vision for your community and the country.