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Party affiliation can be misleading in school elections

HARRISBURG - When Devon Taliaferro first ran for school board in Pittsburgh Public Schools, she filed as a Democrat.

She’s a registered member of the party and considers herself a progressive on issues like policing and school safety, attempts to ban books, and LGBTQ rights.

This year, she’s running to keep the seat and will face a Democratic opponent during the May 16 primary. So she made a strategic decision: To increase her chances of making it to the November general election, she filed to run as a Republican, too.

“It doesn’t change my stance on things,” said Taliaferro. “I’m not going to stand down from those parts of my platform.”

Pennsylvania is one of nine states that has closed primaries, meaning only registered Democrats and Republicans can vote for candidates during partisan spring elections. School board elections are one of the few races in which candidates can appear on both parties’ ballots, a move known as cross-filing.

Many education advocates say this system decreases partisanship. It allows voters to focus on candidates rather than political affiliations.

The practice has also been criticized by some Democrats and Republicans for decades as confusing for voters. Some state lawmakers, who want to eliminate cross-filing, argue that partisan affiliations indicate candidates’ values.

Lawmakers and advocates on various sides of education debates say the long-standing issue has grown more urgent as school board races have become a national flashpoint in recent years.

Susan Spicka, who heads the advocacy group Education Voters of PA, is concerned about that politicization. She pointed to a Bucks County district in which the current board banned books and said that limiting cross-filing for school board races would allow increasingly extreme candidates to win primaries.

“There really hasn’t been a problem [with the current system],” Spicka said. “We should all be deeply suspicious that as this extremist movement is trying to impose an agenda on our school boards, lawmakers are trying to change this system.”

Pennsylvania began allowing school board candidates to cross-file and run in both primaries more than 50 years ago, but in the past decade, lawmakers have repeatedly tried to scrap or modify the statute.

Cancel cross-filing

State Rep. Marci Mustello (R., Butler) said cross-filing does voters a disservice. For the second time, she has introduced a bill that would limit school board candidates to filing with a single political party.

“They only need 10 signatures to get on the ballot,” Mustello said of these candidates.

She noted that school boards are responsible for important policy decisions, such as raising property taxes and managing school district budgets.

“People want to go into the ballot box knowing which side people are on and the core beliefs that each party has. I think it’s just less confusing for the voters,” Mustello said.

Mustello’s bill only targets school board races, but cross-filing isn’t limited to these elections. Lower court candidates such as those running for Courts of Common Pleas can also cross-file. All other candidates must file with only one party.

Prior proposals

In general, proposals to get rid of cross-filing haven’t been successful. Most never got a floor vote, and the one that did, in 2018, made it through the state House and then stalled in the state Senate.

Mustello’s latest proposal likely will not go very far.

Her bill is in the lower chamber’s State Government Committee, whose chair, Scott Conklin (D., Centre), said he has no immediate plans to bring it up for a vote.

“If there are any races that I believe that politics should be kept out of, it’s school board races and judge races,” Conklin said. “Candidates running, especially at a school board level, should be on that ballot based on the merits of their qualifications and what they can do for the community. Not because they happen to have a donkey or an elephant next to their name.”

Keep cross-filing

Yael Silk, a candidate for a board seat in Pittsburgh Public Schools, argued that party organizations endorse school board candidates so voters are able to see which ones are backed by their party of choice.

In Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located, registered Democrats far outnumber Republicans. Without cross-filing, Silk said Republican voters wouldn’t get to meaningfully weigh in on her race.

This kind of political homogeneity is common in school board races, Spicka said, because they are so hyperlocal. Attaching partisan politics to these races would make school board elections a numbers game determined by which party has better turnout. Such a scenario would make races “a pre-ordained outcome,” she said.

Middle ground

At least one lawmaker thinks there’s a middle ground between getting rid of cross-filing and keeping partisan politics totally out of school board races. State Sen. Judy Schwank (D., Berks) plans to introduce a bill that would keep cross-filing, but also require any candidates who run for more than one party nomination to list on the ballot what party they personally belong to.

Under the current system, voters cannot easily check candidates’ party registrations. A spokesperson for the Department of State said the best way is for voters to call their county boards of elections and ask - voters can look up contact information here.

The Pennsylvania Department of State also has a registration status tool that can be used to check a candidate’s party registration, but the voter must know the candidate’s Zip code and date of birth. Other than that, a voter would have to purchase the department’s full voter roll for $20 and search for the candidates.

Schwank said she doesn’t want to limit candidates from running for office, but she thinks cross-filing confuses voters. Her bill, she said, seeks to give voters as much information as possible, and its core premise is that if a candidate registers with a particular party, then “they ascribe to certain foundational aspects of that party.”

Schwank hasn’t formally introduced the bill.

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Voting signs in Philadelphia in 2021. In odd-year elections like these, many local candidates cross-file. TYGER WILLIAMS/PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER