Pennsylvanians just voted in primary elections in June to nominate Democratic and Republican candidates for the office of state auditor general. Those candidates will face off against each other in November.
I teach courses about American politics and elections to Penn State students. Every time I ask if they know what the duties of the office of auditor general are, none of the students know. If I ask them the name of the current Pennsylvania auditor general, none of them know. And when I ask students if they can name any of the candidates for auditor general on the ballot in an upcoming election, none of them know.
While my students are newer to the political system than most voters, I doubt that a majority of Pennsylvanians have any idea who their state auditor general is, who the candidates are, or what that office does. So when given a ballot, how are voters supposed to decide who is the best candidate for the office that examines whether state tax money is being spent properly?
In a general election, voters may have seen some advertising and most likely vote with partisan preferences. But in primary elections, with less advertising, that doesn’t work. The ballot can be filled with candidates voters don’t know.
Pennsylvania is one of only a few states that provides a helpful clue on its primary ballot: The county of residence of the candidate.
For many years, Pennsylvania has had strong regional political rivalries and divisions between the Philadelphia and the Pittsburgh areas. On primary election ballots, voters in the Philadelphia area will vote for the candidate on the ballot who is from the Philadelphia region. Voters in the Pittsburgh area will vote for the candidate on the ballot who is from Allegheny County or one of the surrounding suburban counties. Most of eastern and western Pennsylvania’s voters will follow suit and vote for the candidate from their side of the state.
While the Philadelphia region overall has more voters than the Pittsburgh region, the tendency of central Pennsylvanians to vote for the Pittsburgh area candidate has often allowed western Pennsylvanians to win primaries. But that practice gets confounded when candidates from central Pennsylvania are on the ballot too.
And all of that is exactly what happened with the recent Democratic primary for auditor general. There were six candidates on the Democratic primary ballot this year: Nina Ahmad of Philadelphia, Michael Lamb of Allegheny County, Scott Conklin of Centre County, Rose Davis of Monroe County, Tracie Fountain of Dauphin County and Christina Hartman of Lancaster County.
While which of these candidates would be the best auditor general is a whole separate issue, political observers in the state knew that Ahmad and Lamb were the likely frontrunners, due to endorsements, campaign fundraising, and their political backgrounds in the state’s two largest population centers. Once all the votes were counted, Ahmad emerged as the statewide winner with 36% of the vote, followed by Lamb with 27% of the vote. Hartman finished with 14% of the state vote, and the other three all received less than 10% statewide.
The sources of their vote totals were revealing. Ahmad won 72% of the vote in the six-way race in Philadelphia, and more than 59% of the vote in every county bordering Philadelphia.
Lamb won more than 70% of the vote in Allegheny County and every county that borders on it and finished far ahead of his five opponents in every county in western Pennsylvania. If it had been a two-way race, Lamb might also have dominated in central Pennsylvania and won.
But the rest of Pennsylvania largely went for the other four candidates in the race, while Democratic voters in those areas also chose whoever lived closest to their homes.
Hartman won easily in her home county of Lancaster with 75% of the vote, and finished first in every county bordering on hers except for Dauphin County, where Fountain won her home county easily with 63%. Fountain also won by large margins in the two suburban counties directly west of Harrisburg.
Conklin of Centre County only won 7.5% of the state vote, but won over half the vote in 10 central Pennsylvania counties and finished first in many others. Davis won her home Monroe County with 76% of the vote and finished first in three other neighboring counties.
A large share of voters choose whichever candidate on the ballot lives closest to them.
This is not the first election where this has happened. This same pattern happens in most Republican and Democratic statewide primaries for offices voters know little about with candidates voters know little about, including all the statewide judicial elections, and elections for statewide offices like Auditor General, State Treasurer, and Lieutenant Governor.
What’s the solution? Given how little information voters have about any of the candidates or offices in primary elections, it doesn’t seem productive simply to eliminate county of residence from the ballot and leave voters with even less information than they have now when voting.
One idea would be for Pennsylvania to stop electing so many offices. However, Americans are stuck on the idea that electing everything is part of our democratic heritage.
Given that, Pennsylvania’s transition to mail-in balloting this year provides an opportunity. When candidates qualify to be on the state ballot in Pennsylvania, perhaps they should now be offered visibility on a state election website. On that website, all the candidates for all the offices can list some biographical information, maybe some video ads, and maybe their positions on a standard set of issues put together by non-partisan voter groups. Information about the website can be sent along with mail-in ballots.
Robert Speel is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Penn State’s Behrend College.