POLS ON THE STREET: Here Come the Judges

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BY JOE SHAHEELI
This is the offest of off-year elections. The average voter (aka “the average human being”) has few interests that they are aware of at stake on the November ballot in Philadelphia in 2021. Many electoral decisions are, in fact, sure to affect their everyday lives in profound ways to come, but few have noted how this will be. The average voter is therefore more concerned with leftover Halloween candy than who or what is on today’s ballot.

Keystone State political insiders, then, are twisting in a wind largely ignored by the spectators of daily national news.

JUDGE MARIA McLAUGHLIN

At the top of the ballot are statewide candidates for Supreme Court, Commonwealth Court and Superior Court. Philadelphia dominates the Democratic ticket, so the clout of the commonwealth’s largest pool of D votes will be keenly tested.

Superior Court Judge Maria McLaughlin is running against Republican Commonwealth Court Judge Kevin Brobson for the open seat on the Supreme Court. A McLaughlin win will bake in a 6-1 D majority on that body for years to come, forming a crucial block against sweeping legislative action should Republicans seize the governorship while retaining control of the General Assembly as well as lower courts. Should Brobson win, Republicans will press through the decade to elect two more justices and regain control of this court.

The SC became a powerful political force in 2018 when it threw out the time-honored practice of violating the Pennsylvania Constitution and gerrymandering districts for US Congress and state General Assembly, a step that Republicans had taken to the hilt after the 2010 census when they controlled all branches of state government. As a result, the Pennsylvania congressional delegation is now stably purple, reflecting its swing-state composition.

The Supremes spoke again when they brushed aside all Trump-inspired complaints about the results of the November 2020 election.

Even in this politicized age, most voters know only four things about the judicial candidates they encounter on their ballot: their party, their name, their county and their gender. Brobson hails from midstate and is a man. McLaughlin is a Philadelphian woman.

Usually there is a bias against Philadelphia candidates outside the southeastern counties. To win, they need a strong turnout at home and in Allegheny County (Pittsburgh) to achieve parity with Republican opponents. The vivacious McLaughlin is no stranger across the state.

But registration signs point to a Republican tilt beyond Philadelphia’s collar counties and the Lancaster-Harrisburg area this year. Does this mean R voters will also be more fired up to vote; or will Trump fans instead stay at home because their hero is not on the ballot? Will President Joe Biden’s sagging polls depress D turnout — further stung by the removal of the straight-ticket party lever from the voting machines?

Alternatively, will anti-Trump and pro-choice women be pumped to back a female in black robes over a male in black robes? Anxious observers are biting their nails to find out.

Personal Warfare for Supreme Position

JUDGE KEVIN BROBSON

Usually a staid affair – judicial candidates cannot discuss stands on issues – this Supreme Court race has turned amazingly ugly. After the usual round of positive TV ads, Brobson launched an unprecedented spot assaulting a McLaughlin decision, on a drunk-driving case, that the Pennsylvania Bar Association condemned as going “too far.” McLaughlin reacted with a nasty ad against Brobson.

The candidates’ commercials for and against each other will catch many eyes as both are well funded, each raising close to $3 million.

It is hard to do meaningful polls on judicial hopefuls. Campaign analysts must rely on sketchier internal polling. What they have been finding, no one is telling. Note, though, that Brobson blinked first when he unleashed his negative ad first.

JUDGE LORI DUMAS

Downballot judicial races are drawing less fire. Commonwealth Court matters greatly to pols, though, since this appellate body rules on cases that involve governmental actions, legislative matters and labor issues. Here the tables are turned: Republicans dominate this body 7-2, so the Democrats would like their candidates, Judges Lori Dumas (Philadelphia) and David Spurgeon (Allegheny), to best incumbent Judge Drew Crompton (Montgomery) and Stacy Wallace (McKean ). Any win would enhance Democratic weight on this court.

Superior Court is the standard channel for most civil and criminal cases. Evenly split by party now at 7 each, the election of its 15th member will have little impact on political powers. It will matter to Philadelphia, though, since Democrat Judge Timika Lane is a native and our city generates a big appeals caseload. Republican Megan Sullivan (Chester), though, is experienced in Philadelphia as well, having graduated from Temple Law School, and understands Southeastern Pennsylvania well.

Next Stop: the Shape of New Districts 2022

2020 US Census results have progressed enough for the General Assembly to begin the work of redistricting. They were delayed by the pandemic, though, putting pressure on lawmakers to wrap up the work in time for candidates – including themselves – to know exactly where they must run for office in next spring’s primary. This is a bipartisan interest, which may work toward its being done promptly rather than for maximum political gain.

Also favoring bipartisanship is that unlike 2011, neither party can win all the chips. While Republican majorities in the House and Senate are firm, Gov. Tom Wolf can cast a (Democratic) veto and any resulting legal squabbles will be decided by the (Democratic) Supreme Court.

MARK NORDENBERG

As a result, the Legislative Reapportionment Committee has an unusual incentive to behave fairly and righteously. It consists of the Majority and Minority chairs of the House and Senate, with a deciding fifth vote as chair. He is Mark Nordenberg, an impeccable legal scholar from the University of Pittsburgh who was appointed by the SC. The LRC has held eight public hearings with ample opportunity for public testimony, including proposed legislative maps, by all comers.

Observers are calling for a balanced map that consolidates districts into fairly logical boundaries with few of the odd wobbles across county and town lines that feature in gerrymandered lines. While lawmakers must ultimately vote on the LRC’s recommendations and may pursue a tweak or two, chiefly to favor incumbents, they are unlikely to cast aside wholesale for partisan gains that are beyond reach.

Look for a more-purple Pennsylvania in future elections, then, although the increased clustering of urban and rural votes by party may still depress the number of swing districts.

There will be one certain loser in this process. The state’s representation in the US House of Representatives will go down from 18 to 17, thanks to slow population growth, so at least one of our current party delegations, now tied at 9 each, must surrender a seat. Because all of Pennsylvania’s actual population losses were in red counties, it will be hard to draw a map that doesn’t wind up costing the Rs one seat.

That same factor will hurt Republican math in redrawn General Assembly districts, although its lawmakers have more leeway to fiddle with their own boundaries.

City Races Are No Races

In the city, up for grabs are two offices, District Attorney and Controller. But not really.

Controller Rebecca Rhynhart is running unopposed in the general election. DA Larry Krasner is faced by Republican Charles Peruto in a race no one thinks Krasner will lose.

D.A. LARRY KRASNER

However, observers will make a minute count of the numbers in this contest because Krasner’s firm progressive ideology and abrasive style has stirred citizens’ attention. The soaring jump in homicides has shaken many Philadelphians even as Krasner doubles down on his pledge to ease overall prosecution. The rioting and looting that followed some “George Floyd” protests last year troubled many Philadelphians. Signs are that they depressed the Democratic vote in November 2020.

Democratic numbers continue their decline in the city, with the latest tally showing a net gain of 5,000 registered Republican voters vs. Democrats. Does this spell trouble for Democratic City Committee? Will law-and-order sentiment recruit some to Peruto’s banner and discourage other Democrats from casting a ballot, starving the statewide judicial ticket thereby? With Philadelphia all over the top of the ballot statewide, Democrats from here to Erie would come out hurting in this scenario and the city’s voice would be weakened in future tussles inside the party.

City Strives to Pump Turnout

How Philadelphia votes will in the end depend on how well its election machinery copes with the challenges of the day.

Ordinarily demanding and meticulous, the Board of Elections’ operations used to follow a staid and familiar process from year to year. Not so since 2020! Back then, Act 77 freed up absentee voting rights and shortened the deadline for voters to register, leaving election workers with more work to do and less time to work in.

As bad luck would have it, its trial run under this new law hit a double whammy in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic. With physical divisions and staffing hard to come by, Philadelphia City Commission, which administers elections, pushed to set up new in-person ballot stations and dropboxes, as well as to count the torrent of new mail-ins.

It then wrapped up the year in the glare of the national news cycle as Donald Trump baselessly challenged Philadelphia’s results and triggered loyal Republican legislators in Harrisburg to plot endless investigations into what had happened, or not happened, a year ago – a drama that still staggers around the halls on Capitol Hill.

City Commission adjusted its plans for the spring 2021 primary to update the progress of the pandemic and to compensate for lessons learned last year. One loss was irreparable, however: money.

COMMISSIONER OMAR SABIR

In 2020, City Commission received a supplemental grant from a national funder to cope with the pandemic. This grant enabled it to deploy satellite voting resources around the city. But that grant is gone with the wind this year and the office is back to the old normal.

“Our office is underfunded,” said Commissioner Omar Sabir. “When the State moved over to expand vote-by-mail, we received no extra appropriation from the State. And it always changes the deployment of people when you have laws constantly changing, coupled with misinformation. Voters are confused, which complicates our administration.”

So there are no satellite offices this November. Still, said Sabir, staff came together to set up 16 drop-off location, open 24/7. They will be closed on election day, but City Hall will be open until all division polling places are closed.

Sabir was hopeful for turnout. The Board of Elections mailed out 110,000 mail-in ballot applications, of which 48,000 had come back a week before election day, about on par with 2020. This year, though, they must be physically returned by 8 p.m. Nov. 2; postmarks don’t count. The outside declaration envelope must be signed and dated.

One disturbing longterm trend continues. “It is harder to get voting locations and to get staff,” said Sabir. “We don’t have the funds to pay election volunteers adequately for a 14-hour day.”

Sabir called on citizens to rise to this challenge. “So many people have sacrificed for the right to vote,” he stated. “Philadelphians have to realize they must increase their ballot behavior. Despite the pandemic, despite everything, we must step up to first-class voting.”

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