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March 18, 2020
A special election affected by pandemic and GOP tactics

Harold “Howie” Hayes fought a great race, under unexpected and challenging circumstances. In the end, he came up short, 44.6% to 55.4%. We are proud of the campaign and extremely proud of the work our volunteers poured into this district.

However, there is another story about this race that must be acknowledged. Last night’s results provide a sobering reminder of why changing the makeup of state legislatures must remain a top priority.

This race was primed for a Democratic win

The fact is: PA HD18 should be a winnable district for Democrats. Hillary Clinton won this district handily in 2016, as have numerous Democratic candidates at the top of the ticket. But as long as Republicans have control of the Pennsylvania House, Republicans will be able to write the rules of elections, and they will write those rules to favor Republicans candidates.

The Republican Speaker of the House, Mike Turzai, wrote the rules of this special election in his party’s favor long before the novel coronavirus was on our horizon, when he decided to hold the special election on St. Patrick’s Day, rather than setting the election to coincide with the state’s primary elections on April 28. There was no reason to hold the special election on this day in March, other than a desire to suppress the vote and give an extra advantage to the party that has held this seat for decades. To add to this advantage, Republicans chose the daughter of the district’s popular Republican State Senator to run for the seat.

Voter suppression increases under a global pandemic

Under usual circumstances, these challenges could have still been overcome, if Democrats organized smartly and reached voters. Then, out of nowhere, the novel coronavirus pandemic hit just as Harold’s special election drew closer. The weekend before the election was set to take place, Democratic Governor Tom Wolf and Democratic state leaders called for the election to be delayed, given concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic and voter confusion. Governor Wolf declared a state of emergency and included Bucks County, where HD18 is located, in his order shutting down all non-essential businesses.

However, under PA law, Republican Speaker Mike Turzai had the final say. Outgoing Speaker Turzai declined to delay the election. Incredibly, he did this while at the same time voting to allow himself and his own legislative chamber colleagues to vote on bills remotely from home! House Democratic Leader Frank Dermody called Turzai’s decision to hold the election a “disgraceful power grab” by the GOP.

Locally, county commissioners then filed for an injunction to halt the elections, citing significant concerns from voters and challenges recruiting staff to work at the polls. A day before the election, fewer than half the number of personnel needed to conduct the election had confirmed their ability to work the polls. Nonetheless, a controversial judge favored by Republicans ruled against the injunction late Monday night.

The result? Howie received 3,631 votes, and the Republican received 4,514.

To put these numbers into context, let’s remember Helen Tai’s 2018 special election in nearby Bucks County PA House District 178, which had less favorable Democratic performance indicators than HD18. That special election was held on the same day as the statewide and federal office primary — May 15, 2018. In that election, Helen received 6,366 votes and the Republican she defeated received 6,265.

This means that Howie’s special election, which Republicans strategically chose to hold on an illogical day, in the middle of an international pandemic, resulted in just a sliver of the turnout seen in 2018.

Gerrymandering and voter suppression had a clear effect

Did the novel coronavirus pandemic cause Howie’s loss? There’s an argument to be made that it’s likely more Democrats than Republicans sat this one out, given both the turnout differentials, and extensive national polling demonstrating without question that Democrats are being much, much more cautious about the coronavirus than are Republicans.

We can’t say for certain what influence the pandemic had on this race, but we can be sure that gerrymandering and other rule-rigging by Pennsylvania’s GOP legislators caused this loss.

In 2018, Democratic PA House candidates won 54% of the vote but only won 45% of the seats as a direct result of Republican gerrymandering. The reason that the State House Speaker is a Republican, despite Democrats receiving the majority of votes, is because of GOP gerrymandering.

Further, rule-rigging played a huge part here. This Speaker did not hold this election on the state’s primary date intentionally to suppress the vote. He also made the decision not to work with the Democratic Governor to reschedule the election, despite the Governor’s request, to further suppress the vote. It worked.

We must remember this in November, and work hard to vote out Republicans from the PA House and in state houses across the country.  This is the only way we can fight back – otherwise, they will continue to rig the rules to their advantage, democracy be damned.