County elections

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Let’s Try Competition in County Elections

Why is it that, term after four-year-term, suburban voters elect the maximum number of Republicans and the minimum number of Democrats to their county governing boards?That’s happened, almost without interruption, for decades, and it happened again earlier this month in races for Bucks, Chester and Montgomery County commissioner and for Delaware County Council.Is it because residents are satisfied with the status quo of one-party control – or because the electoral systems and entrenched political interests (and individuals) undermine competition, representative government and political accountability?Because county government has never before played such a crucial role in homeland security, not to mention the environment and the economy, each of us must insist upon more open and democratic methods of electing our representatives. Every citizen has a critical stake in the debate over how to bring greater accountability and responsiveness to our county government systems in the suburbs.Some may be surprised to learn that not all of our suburban counties govern themselves the same way. Bucks, Chester and Montgomery Counties operate under the older system of guaranteed minority-party representation. Since World War II, both Chester and Montgomery Counties have had a 2-1 Republican majority. In Bucks County, Republicans have held the same 2-1 advantage for all but four years in the mid-’80s. In each of these counties, one party can win no more than two seats at a time.Therefore, each party fields no more than two candidates per general election. Like clockwork, the Republicans win the top two commissioners’ seats, and the two Democrats are left to fight it out for the last opening.In Delaware County, there is a five-member County Council with no guaranteed minority-party representation. And since its Home Rule Charter was adopted in the mid-1970s, no Democrat has been elected to the council.Regardless of whether we’re dealing with guaranteed minority representation in three counties or the Home Rule Charter in the fourth that perpetuates one-party dominance, we’re dealing with two systems that are functionally anti-democratic.Perhaps we can kid ourselves into believing that the process is more or less egregious in one case or the other. The point is that each supports one-party control and makes county elections practically irrelevant. And because the same anti-competitive, anti-democratic, and anti-representational results appear in both systems, we need to roll up our sleeves and fix these problems before they do more damage to our democracy. Consider, for a moment, what a lack of competition, democracy and representation produces under each electoral process. Virtual and real power monopolies at any level produce cronyism, corruption, and graft among office holders, and cynicism, frustration and apathy among citizens.County officials are responsible for many important issues, including the methods and tools employed by first-responder, emergency personnel to possible terrorist threats; the awarding of county government contracts; preservation of open space; and local tax levies.On the one hand, it is difficult to measure the actual costs and consequences of our suburban counties’ less-than-democratic electoral systems. On the other hand, it is a generally accepted principle that entrenched, one-party rule significantly increases the risk of unaccountable governments that are run more for the benefit of campaign contributors and political allies than for the general public interest.As an educator, historian and suburban resident, I say that now is the time to seriously reconsider our county government structures. The best step now would be to establish a government study commission to examine various methods of truer representation (district-by-district and county-wide elections, for example), as well as greater citizen participation in local elections and government.Chester County voters approved such a commission in 1973, but voters rejected its recommendations in 1975. Given Chester County’s previous efforts to enhance representative government, its citizens and those of Bucks, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties should be emboldened to petition for study commissions whose proposals would be voted on by the public. Or democratic-minded county commissioners could take the same initiative on their own by seeking public comment and then putting their proposed solutions before voters. Whether bottom-up or top-down, it’s time now for constructive action.

Chuck Pennacchio ([email protected]), a native of Delaware County, lives in Bucks County and is history program director at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.