There’s been some time to look through more of the municipal primary election results. And I think there’s three stories.
School District Regions Are Bad For Democracy
I looked through all elections in 2023 and 2021 and one clear pattern is that there are fewer candidates for school districts that vote by region instead of having just at-large seats. As an example, WSSD had 7 candidates for 4 seats in 2021 and 5 candidates for 5 seats in 2023. Rose Tree Media had 11 candidates for 4 seats in 2021 and 10 for 5 seats in 2023. This trend holds up in every district I looked at in DelCo, at-large seats are always more competitive.
The argument against this has traditionally been that regions allow for more local representation. But it’s never worked. Region 2 is usually dominated by candidates from the wealthiest part in Rose Valley, with the brief Garden City representation a blip unlikely to re-occur. Neither of the school board members Garden City elected were able to finish a term – it’s too hard for working class people to do so much uncompensated work. Similarly it’s taken focused effort to recruit a candidate from South Media and get her on the school board – an effort spearheaded by Barb, so also unlikely to happen again now.
Another argument is that WSSD would no longer have any competitive regions. Regions 1 and 3 are heavily Democratic with voters that vote in every election. Only Region 2 remains competitive (although it too is trending blue). Democrats would be heavily favored in at-large districts. But reviewing other school districts, at least voters would have a choice – whether its a contested general election or a contested primary, at least something would be contested.
If we want a more robust and democratic system, we should abolish the regions.
The Republican Party Isn’t The One Struggling
Despite being on the ropes in DelCo due to demographic and ideological changes, the Republican party remains a robust organization. Nether Providence, where no Republicans ran, is an anomaly rather than part of a trend. In DelCo there were 11 municipalities without Republican candidates in both 2021 and 2023. Which municipalities changed, but not the overall number. The Republicans recruited 109 candidates to run in 2023 vs. 115 in 2021. Given the decrease in engagement, that’s a steady effort.
The Democrats continue to be thwarted by poor candidate development and engagement. The number of municipalities with no Democrats running (looking only at township boards, not school districts) doubled from five in 2021 to ten in 2023. The number of candidates for township councils and boards dropped from 159 to 128. Democrats are returning to pre-Trump apathy.
Philly Continues To Fail Democrats Statewide
Philadelphia Democratic Chair Bob Brady sent out a letter celebrating his machine’s ability to continue to dominate Philadelphia politics. But the story for statewide candidates continues to be one of failure. If Philadelphia voted at the same rates as its suburbs, Pennsylvania would be a solid blue state. Despite a robust primary slate of candidates, Philadelphia’s turnout continued to be abysmal. This chart shows that Allegheny County now turned out more voters than Philadelphia last year despite having 133,000 less registered voters. As Ryan Briggs from the Inquirer noted,
About 625,000 Democrats turned out to cast ballots for the 1983 mayoral primary, a few years before Brady became chair of the Philly Dems
This year will see about 241,000.
No question party endorsement was decisive, but raises questions for Dems running statewide down the road.
Over that period, Philadelphia’s population has decreased about 10% but it’s number of votes has dropped by more than half despite an active mayoral primary this year. There are too many places in America where party leaders care more about control than motivating voters to participate in civic life. And Philadelphia’s an unfortunate example of that.