Vast Majority Of PA Legislative Races Will Effectively Be Decided During Primary

Pennsylvania’s 2024 state House and Senate races will be decided by just a sliver of the voting population, thanks to closed primaries and non-competitive districts.

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By Kate Huangpu | Spotlight PA

A view of the Pennsylvania Capitol from State Street in Harrisburg. File photo.

Millions of voters across the political spectrum will have little choice this year in who represents them in the state House and Senate, thanks to a lack of competitive state legislative districts coupled with Pennsylvania’s closed primary system.

That combination leaves ultimate control of the legislature and its policy agenda in the hands of a small minority of the population.

The races for just 14% of the 228 seats on the ballot this year are expected to be competitive: 29 in the state House and three in the state Senate. Only 1.9 million of Pennsylvania’s 8.7 million voters live in these districts.

The candidates who will hold the vast majority of seats will effectively be decided during partisan, low-turnout primary elections on April 23. That’s because most legislative districts have a strong partisan lean toward Democrats or Republicans.

Dave’s Redistricting, a nonpartisan website that analyzes political maps, considers a district to be competitive if the partisan lean is between 44% and 54%; it produces these percentages based on a composite of past election results.

Pennsylvania also has a closed primary system, meaning only Democrats and Republicans can participate in their party’s spring elections. That keeps many of the state’s 1.3 million unaffiliated and third-party voters from having a meaningful say in who represents them in Harrisburg.

(Technically, independents and third-party voters can switch their registration to the party whose primary they want to participate in up until 15 days before the election, and switch back to their original registration after they’ve voted.)

At stake is control of the 203-member state House and 50-member state Senate (only half of the latter chamber’s seats are on the ballot this year). The party that controls each chamber will decide what legislation will be prioritized or blocked during the next two-year session.

Democrats won a one-seat state House majority in 2022 after more than a decade out of power. That victory hinged on a handful of races that were decided by only a few hundred votes. Republicans, meanwhile, have controlled the state Senate for decades, but Democrats see an opportunity to at least tie the chamber.

Despite the high stakes, fewer voters are expected to get a significant say in determining the balance than just a few years ago.

The number of competitive legislative districts in Pennsylvania fell after the 2020 redistricting process, from 58 to 38.

The commission that drew the maps had to follow certain constitutional requirements — including one that calls for equal population in each district — while contending with population trends.

Pennsylvania’s rural areas lost people while urban and suburban areas gained them. People also choose to live around people who they believe have similar political views, said Chris Fowler, a professor of geography at Penn State who served on former Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s Redistricting Advisory Council.

This demographic pattern concentrates Democrats and Republicans in different pockets of the state and makes it harder to draw competitive districts.

“Sorting does shape the political landscape,” Fowler said.

Where a vote means more

Democrats and Republicans who live in a district that strongly leans toward their party get a more significant say in who represents them in the legislature. Such voters have the opportunity to pick their lawmakers during primaries, which historically have lower turnout than the general election.

Take state House District 100, represented by Minority Leader Bryan Cutler of Lancaster County. It leans strongly toward Republicans.

In 2022, Cutler won the GOP primary election with just over 6,100 votes in a district with 33,000 registered voters. He ran unopposed in November, but this primary is again facing a challenge from the right.

A few dozen miles to the east is state House District 200, represented by Chris Rabb of Philadelphia. Its partisan lean toward Democrats is one of the most dramatic in the state, at 96%.

In 2022, there were 51,000 registered voters in the district. A little more than 18,000 Democrats voted in the primary election that saw Rabb face then-Rep. Isabella Fitzgerald; the two incumbents were drawn into the same district during redistricting.

Rabb won the primary race with 62% of the vote before handily winning the general election against a Republican opponent. This year, his victory is assured: he is unopposed in the primary.

The state’s competitive districts are primarily clustered in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh suburbs. General election contests in some of these districts have been decided by just a few dozen or a few hundred votes, giving voters from across the political spectrum a strong stake in these elections. Turnout is key in such races, as every vote cast could sway the results.

That was the case for state House District 144 in 2022, where Democratic Rep. Brian Munroe defeated incumbent Republican Todd Polinchock by 515 votes. Nearly 70% of registered voters participated.

Of the 25 state Senate districts on the ballot this year — which haven’t been tested since the boundaries were redrawn in 2022 — only three are considered to be competitive.

That includes District 37, currently represented by Republican Sen. Devlin Robinson of Allegheny County. It has a Democratic lean of 53% and is a major target as Democrats seek to flip the chamber.

In 2022, Robinson defeated Democratic incumbent Pam Iovino by more than 7,000 votes. In this year’s general election, he will face Democrat Nicole Ruscitto, a librarian and former Jefferson Hills borough council member.

Of the district’s more than 181,000 voters, 15% are independent or belong to a third party. That’s around 28,000 people whose votes could decide the election.

Visualization by Spotlight PA’s Jeff Rummell.

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