When Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale appeared recently at the Pennsylvania Press Club he spoke of the frustrations of running for a low profile statewide office in a Presidential election year. The night of the televised debate with his GOP opponent even his wife didn’t tune in. Voters didn’t tune in either; despite the fact the Auditor General is the state’s top fiscal watchdog.
Even today, months after taking office, it is unlikely most Pennsylvanians could identify DePasquale as Auditor General or Rob McCord, now in his second term, as the State Treasurer. Those positions, among the oldest elected posts in the commonwealth, carry enormous responsibility for ensuring the smooth and honest expenditure of billions in tax dollars. The constitutional offices; often referred to as "state row offices," also include the Pennsylvania Attorney General. The Office of Attorney General is a relative youngster, having become an elected position for the first time in 1980.
In addition to their vital functions, these positions have also been a farm team of sorts for producing candidates for more visible offices. U.S. Senator Bob Casey, Jr. – like his father, former Governor Robert P. Casey – served as Auditor General. The younger Casey also was elected State Treasurer. Governor Tom Corbett ascended to the state’s top post from the Attorney General’s office. Former gubernatorial nominees Mike Fisher and Barbara Hafer served as row officers while making failed bids for chief executive.
Auditor General, State Treasurer and Attorney General are significantly important positions both by virtue of the powers vested in those offices, and by their impact on the political process. Despite this, only races for Attorney General have demonstrated the ability to cut through the clamor of Presidential and often U.S. Senate campaigns and attract any amount of voter attention.
Let us step forward to this year’s elections. Barring an unexpected congressional vacancy, no national office will appear on a ballot anywhere in Pennsylvania this year. There is no presidential campaign, no U.S Senate campaign, no congressional campaigns. The only statewide office on the ballot is for a seat on the Superior Court. A handful of counties will elect county executives and county council members, although for most of the state’s 67 counties commissioners won’t appear on the ballot until 2015. Most of the action this year is at the local level for municipal and school district races.
In political parlance this is an "off year" election. That is unfortunate description given the importance of county, municipal and school board elections, but it refers to the fact that no office likely to generate broad voter interest and spur voter turn-out will appear on the ballot. In the four-year election cycle, this would be considered the electoral low point. Voter turn-out, at over 59% in Pennsylvania last year, will struggle to hit quarter of the electorate in many precincts this year.
Here then is a suggestion: amend the state constitution so the offices of Attorney General, Auditor General and State Treasurer are filled by voters in the year following a Presidential election rather than in a Presidential election year. This simple change in scheduling would transform those three races from an afterthought to starring role. Candidates for these positions would not need to compete for attention, campaign workers, money and media attention with the Presidential race. Simply put, the focus would be on them.
Such a move would produce two positive effects. First, the enhanced role of the state row office campaigns would result in better public understanding of the jobs these officials perform and an electorate more informed about the candidates’ qualifications and policy positions. Second, having statewide offices on the ballot in an "off year" would generate voter interest and improve turn-out. That would benefit candidates running for election at all levels of government.
All too often candidates for Attorney General, Auditor General and State Treasurer, have been swept into office on the coattails of whichever presidential nominee is carrying Pennsylvania. This has at various times in history benefitted each of the two major political parties, but qualifications rather than political tides should be the determining factor.
The time has come to give Pennsylvania’s statewide constitutional offices their time in the limelight. Moving these elections to a non-presidential "off year" is exactly the way to focus voter attention on three jobs that perform an often low profile, but vital role in the functioning of state government.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. He was the Republican Nominee for State Treasurer in 1992. His e-mail address is [email protected])
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