September 25, 2022

As citizens of the American Republic, we pride ourselves on our small-d democratic approach to politics. Democratic processes are in our historic DNA, and even as they are being chipped away, we still believe in the power and rightness of open and honest majoritarian contests to decide not only elections but all sorts of decisions that affect large groups of people. 

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Some work well, others not so much.

A few months ago, in the span of one week, I had the opportunity to participate in two democratic processes: one that worked well and one that was corrupted. Unsurprisingly, the first was a smallish membership organization where the baked-in democratic values of our American approach flourished. Equally unsurprisingly, the corrupted process was in the realm of politics.

The first involved my Conservative Synagogue. After more than three decades, our much-admired Rabbi was retiring.  The search committee was appointed and they, thankfully, winnowed the candidate search to three appropriately matched applicants.  Then, every congregant who wished to, had the opportunity to participate in the Rabbinic candidates’ evaluations.  Either in person or over Zoom, our assignment was to view a single candidate per week, as they mingled, gave a Saturday morning sermon, and interacted with various age groups in the congregation, and participated in a varied series of events.

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After each weekend’s viewing, congregants were expected to complete a questionnaire, evaluating each candidate’s strengths, weaknesses, and compatibility with the goals of the organization.  Additionally, we congregants were asked to rank our first, second, and third choices, choices which could fluctuate as the process progressed. Throughout the search, we were aware that all three candidates were being interviewed by other synagogues, so that our first choice might not accept our offer. Divine intervention occurred; our first choice loved us back and the democratic process triumphed.

That same weekend, in February 2022, I attended the Republican State Committee Meeting in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  Our job, as State Committee Members was, as usual, to interview, vet, select, and support the endorsed candidates whom we deemed as possessing the strongest personal qualities and best chances of winning in the Primary, as well as the General Election.

But this cycle was unlike any that had occurred since the late 1950’s.  For the first time in approximately seventy years, the top three positions, for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania were “open seats.”  Open seats occur when no incumbent is running, due to terms limits, retirements, physical impairments, or death.  Open seats always draw more candidates battling it out in the Primary. But this cycle was overwhelming: we were tasked to vet, in a ridiculously truncated period, almost 30 candidates for the three top positions.  It was impossible.

To appear as a qualified candidate on the primary ballot, depending on the office sought, each candidate must scramble to obtain the requisite number of petition signatures within a prescribed period.  One cannot start collecting signatures before or after the prescribed dates – or they will be disregarded.  Moreover, the signatures must be executed in a precise format, or, again, they will be disqualified.  A presidential candidate must have 2,000 signatures as does a U.S. senatorial candidate; a Pennsylvania senate candidate needs 500, a State House candidate 300. After all signatures have been collected, the petitions must then be notarized and registered in Harrisburg.  Complicating the process further, the Democrats and Republicans had battled over redistricting so long that they drastically reduced the amount of time all candidates had to complete the process.  The normally prescribed three-week process was truncated to ten days.

At the end of the laborious process, the Republicans’ outcome was mixed. There were nine candidates running for governor, and one, Douglas Mastriano, won big with 44% of the vote, despite many Republican leaders’ efforts to block him.  In fact, throughout the primary, despite being labeled as “extreme right,” Mastriano consistently polled at least at 40%.  This margin was huge when one considered how many high-profile candidates were running and the percentage by which he prevailed. 

In comparison, seven senate candidates made it through to the primary out of a much larger field of petitioners.  The same dynamic applied with multiple known and well-qualified candidates.  But there were none that emerged as noticeably and as consistently as Doug Mastriano. In fact, the U.S. Senate race was ultimately a dogfight between Dr. Mehmet Oz and Dave McCormack, with Oz winning with less than 1000 votes, a cliffhanger that took days to tally.