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Pa. primary election 2023: A basic guide to vetting candidates for school board, judge, and more

Local candidates with a lot of direct power over Pennsylvanians’ daily lives will appear on the May 16 primary ballot. Here are some tips to learn more about them.

Pa. primary election 2023: A basic guide to vetting candidates for school board, judge, and more

IMAGE: A Pennsylvania voter in Camp Hill wears an I Voted sticker on Election Day, Nov. 8, 2022.

Stephen Caruso of Spotlight PA

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HARRISBURG — When voters go to the polls or fill out their mail ballots for Pennsylvania’s May 16 primary election, they’ll see a slew of local candidates with a lot of direct power over their daily lives.

While these officials have a direct say in the taxes you pay and how the criminal justice system treats you, it can be difficult to find good information about the people running to represent you. Spotlight PA has some tips to make the vetting process easier.

Along with statewide races for Pennsylvania’s appellate courts, this year’s primary will also feature elections for school boards, mayorships, councils, local judgeships, and more. Exactly which races you see on your ballot will depend on where you live.

Pennsylvania has a closed, partisan primary system. Only Democrats can vote for Democratic candidates vying to move to the November general election. The same rule applies to Republican voters.

However, all voters, including those who are unaffiliated or who are registered to a third party, can vote in special elections that coincide with a spring primary — there are two on May 16 — or for local ballot initiatives.

That’s why it’s important to check a sample ballot or contact your county about what’s on your ballot ahead of Election Day.

Here are some steps you can take to prepare for May 16:

What do these officials do?

Some candidates are running for specialized municipal or countywide positions such as tax collector, controller, coroner, and register of wills, who issue marriage licenses. They serve four-year terms.

Also on the ballot will be the many executive and legislative branch officials of local governments, including school board members, mayors, county commissioners, and in Allegheny County, the county executive. They set and enact a range of policies, from local property tax rates to zoning rules to police budgets.

Finally, candidates are running for positions that influence the criminal justice system, including constables, local judges, and district attorneys. Among other duties, the latter are responsible for prosecuting people who are arrested.

Local judgeships fall into two main categories. Magisterial district judges, sometimes called the “frontline” of the state’s justice system, issue arrest and search warrants, approve protection from abuse orders, oversee evictions, set bail, and can officiate weddings.

Candidates do not have to be lawyers to hold the position; however, those elected are required to take four weeks of training and pass an exam. They are elected to six-year terms, and face an opponent for reelection rather than a yes-or-no vote.

This system is different in Philadelphia, where voters elect municipal and traffic judges.

Then, there are Common Pleas judges who are elected by district, of which there are 60. Some districts contain multiple counties. You can find a full list of counties by judicial district here.

These judges must be admitted to the state bar and are the first rung in most civil and criminal trials. They serve 10-year terms before running in nonpartisan retention elections.

Thirty counties have an open Common Pleas judgeship on the ballot this year, according to Pennsylvania Department of State records.

Find who is on your ballot

To learn who is on the ballot, you should check with your county election office (see a list here).

Some counties, such as Allegheny, Lancaster, and York Counties, publish sample ballots, although those may not be available until three to five weeks before the election. (Googling “[county name] sample ballot” or “Pennsylvania sample ballot” is a solid start.)

BallotReady and the League of Women Voters’ Vote411 initiative also provide sample ballots based on address, though they don’t always include down-ballot races such as ones for school board.

Learn the basics

Use candidates’ names and a search engine to learn more about them. Campaign websites usually provide background on a candidate, list their platform, and detail endorsements they’ve received.

Social media accounts sometimes give a more personal look into a candidate’s views, and explain why they’re running for office and what policies they plan to support. To find a social media account, search for a candidate’s name plus a social media platform by typing a phrase such as “Jane Smith Twitter” or “Jane Smith Facebook.”

You can also use Facebook’s ad library to explore how candidates or political groups boost their messages across the platform.

News articles can offer you a more in-depth look at a candidate, detail how a community perceives them, and raise any potential red flags about the candidate’s beliefs or affiliations. But it’s important to vet the trustworthiness and accuracy of the news source.

To learn how to vet your sources, read this guide to spotting false information by Cornell University, and this guide to analyzing a news source by Melissa Zimdars, a communications professor who researches misinformation.

Check out endorsements

Figuring out which candidates align with you on key topics is difficult. Many politicians, and interest groups such as gun rights organizations and unions, try to cut through this uncertainty with endorsements. Candidates will usually prominently display them.

These endorsements are even more critical in judicial races. State law bars candidates for the bench from taking public stances on policy issues, as they are expected to provide impartial judgment on cases before them. As such, their remarks and statements might not be helpful when you’re trying to figure out how they’ll rule.

If you want more objective information, you can also learn about a judicial candidate’s legal qualifications through local bar associations. These groups sometimes offer recommendations on their county’s Common Pleas candidates, either through a special committee or by polling their members on the candidates and their qualifications.

Bar association recommendations look over each candidate’s resume and provide a short summary of their ability to handle the job. Usually, bars will offer three different ratings: highly recommended, recommended, or not recommended.

However, some candidates who aren’t recommended argue that their skills are undervalued by their peers, and jurists who won without a recommendation have gone on to have long, respected careers on the bench, such as former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Saylor.

Below are links to the websites for bar associations in five of Pennsylvania’s more populous counties. It’s not an exhaustive list, so check Google to see if your own county has one. (Your county may also just not have any Common Pleas judges on the ballot.)

Take a deeper dive

Following the money will take even more work, but it’s just as important. Under federal and state campaign finance laws, all candidates are required to regularly file paperwork that shows who has given them money and how they spent it. Donations from political committees, other organizations, or even individuals can indicate who influences the candidate, and the policies they might support once elected.

All of this information is available to you — in theory.

The Federal Election Commission website and platforms such as OpenSecrets allow you to search for donations to federal campaigns. In Pennsylvania, state-level candidates (including Common Pleas judges) file their campaign finance information with the Department of State, which lists those reports online.

Candidates for local positions like mayor or school board, have to file financial reports too, but they file with only the county election office. There’s no central, statewide database for filings, and not all counties widely allow voters to access this information.

A few counties, such as Allegheny County, Erie County, and Philadelphia, post this information online, while others only allow people to view it in person.

If the records you seek are not accessible online, you can contact the county election office. If they’re accessible only in person, you will have to take time out of your day to visit the election office and review the documents.

Read more Election 2023 coverage from Spotlight PA:

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