This article first appeared in Broad + Liberty
Two Republicans in the Pennsylvania state senate have taken the first step towards legislation that creates a runoff system in primary elections.
A legislative memo posted on the state website shows Senators Ryan P. Aument (Lancaster) and Frank Farry (Bucks) are trying to marshall support for future legislation that would create the runoff primary system that by design ensures every winner of a party primary has majority support in order to advance.
“In recent years we have seen a number of primary elections that attract a large number of candidates. In large, competitive primaries, a candidate can win with the support of only a small fraction of voters,” the legislative memo reads. “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. In all scenarios, the winner of a primary election should emerge as a clear consensus pick of that party and this legislation is a step towards that goal.”
The proposed process can be neatly illustrated with the recent mayoral race in Philadelphia.
The Democratic primary totaled nine candidates. Former city councilwoman Cherelle Parker won with 29.5 percent of the vote while former controller Rebecca Rhynhart finished second with 20.9 percent.
Under a runoff system, Parker and Rhyhart would move on to a second, runoff election. Because the runoff is limited to the top two vote getters, one of the candidates mathematically must emerge with a majority. The runoff allows citizens who voted for a less favored candidate in the first round — take for instance Jeff Brown who gathered eight percent — to consolidate support behind one of the top-two candidates.
Even though Parker’s win in the Democratic primary was authoritative, elements of her win also illustrate why the two senators believe runoff primaries could benefit political passions across all parties.
“While Parker beat out her closest rival by a commanding 10 percentage points, her winning share of the vote with 94 percent of divisions reporting was the lowest in modern mayoral history. Just 75,914 people backed her, according to returns updated Wednesday. That’s the lowest winning primary total dating to at least the 1970s,” the Inquirer reported.
For a Republican example: In the 2022 gubernatorial primary, State Sen. Doug Mastriano would have gone head-to-head in a runoff against Lou Barletta, who each got 43.8 and 20.2 percent respectively. If Mastriano had crossed the 50-percent threshold in the first round of voting, no runoff would be necessary.
“To be clear, this proposal would only apply to primary elections,” the legislative memo also noted.
The document put forward by Sens. Farry and Aument is only a legislative memorandum, and is not yet a bill in draft form. However, putting forward a legislative memo is the first step in authoring legislation in Pennsylvania.
Their memo notes that ten states currently use a runoff system: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and Vermont.
The proposal of the bill comes as there has been an increased push across the commonwealth to make primaries “open,” meaning that independent voters could cast a ballot in either the Democratic or Republican primary.