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For decades, Pa. school board candidates have been able to run in both parties. But as races get more partisan, some lawmakers want to change that.
photo by TYGER WILLIAMS / Philadelphia Inquirer
by Kate Huangpu of Spotlight PA
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 because it allows voters to focus on candidates rather than political affiliations.
But 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, information that is especially important in small local elections with limited media coverage.
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 one of the people concerned about that politicization. She pointed to one Bucks County district in which the current board banned books and said she’s worried 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.
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. “And sometimes you don’t know who these people are. They don’t do mailings, some of them don’t go door to door like other candidates when they’re running for office.”
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. In all other elections, candidates must file with only one party.
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), told Spotlight PA 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.”
Yael Silk, a candidate for a board seat in Pittsburgh Public Schools, argued that voter information isn’t an especially pressing concern. In many counties — including Allegheny, where she’s running — party organizations endorse school board candidates so voters are able to see which ones are backed by their party of choice.
“I think that historically, school board races can be low-information races,” Silk said. “But … if you’re interested in making sure you’re voting for a Democrat, then you can look at the Allegheny County Democratic Committee’s voter guide.”
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. She added, 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.
Spicka argued politically heterogeneous districts would suffer the same fate, citing personal experience. Beginning in 2016, she served for three years on the board of the Shippensburg Area School District, which she described as pretty evenly divided between Democratic and Republican voters.
She ran on both the Democratic and Republican primary ballots in 2019, and lost both of those races. But she attributed her loss to her support for building a new stadium in the district, not to her political affiliation. Both races came down to less than a dozen votes.
“It’s about people’s ability to connect when knocking on doors, it’s about very specific local issues, and it’s about turnout,” Spicka said. “That’s why it’s such a shame to see people focus on these culture war issues.”
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) has announced 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 yet formally introduced the bill. It would first need to pass her chamber’s State Government Committee, and Schwank said that while she has discussed it with the committee’s Republican chair, Cris Dush of Centre County, he hasn’t taken a position.
“As much as people like to say they dislike party labels and they wish there [weren’t] party politics, that’s the system that we have,” Schwank said. “I just think this would just help improve it slightly so that people can make more informed choices when they vote.”
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