Democracy In Pennsylvania

Howard Wial
Publication Date: 
July 31, 1999


Money has great influence on politics. The gap between the haves and the have-nots has grown. Considered separately, these facts are now widely recognized in Pennsylvania and across the nation.

On this July 4, this report puts these two features of contemporary America next to one another and raises fundamental questions. Do the influence of money on politics and the growing concentration of wealth compromise the democratic ideals on which the United States and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania were founded? Could they feed on one another in ways that entrench gaps in power, opportunity, and status? At a time of rising inequality, does one-dollar, one-vote endanger the goals of widespread economic and social mobility?

Now is a time when Americans should be especially concerned about economically based inequality of political influence. Wealth inequality in the United States is at a near-historic high. In 1774, just before the birth of the nation, the most affluent 1 percent of Americans owned 15 percent of national wealth. In 1997, they owned an estimated 40 percent, up from 18 percent in 1976.

Wealth can translate into political influence through direct contributions to political candidates. Inequalities in wealth can also weaken political democracy by alienating the less well off from politics, making them less likely to vote or participate in politics in other ways. In addition, just as inequality can undercut democracy, lack of democracy can lead to inequality via policies that favor the affluent (e.g., a lower capital gains tax, erosion in the purchasing power of the minimum wage).

Election data show that high levels of economic inequality and low levels of political democracy tend to go together in contemporary America. In 1996, states with more inequality of family income generally had significantly lower rates of voter registration and voter turnout.

  • The 10 states with the most unequal income distributions had an average voter turnout of 52 percent and voter registration of 64 percent.
  • The 10 states with the most equal income distribution had an average voter turnout of 62 percent and voter registration of 75 percent.

Following a discussion of the links between democracy and inequality, this report examines the state of democracy in Pennsylvania today with Pennsylvania in the past, with other states, and with the United States as a whole. The report finds that democracy in Pennsylvania, however measured, is in poor health.

Money in Politics

Pennsylvania has one of the weakest state campaign finance laws.

  • It imposes no limits on individual or PAC campaign contributions and does not limit the amount that individuals can give to PACs.
  • In contrast, all the states that surround Pennsylvania limit individual and PAC campaign contributions.
  • Only 13 other states allow unlimited individual contributions.

In statewide and local races, spending has increased substantially over time.

  • Adjusted for inflation, campaign contributions per Pennsylvania congressional district rose 38 percent from 1992 to 1998, far above the overall national increase of 7 percent. The increase in Pennsylvania was the 12th highest of the 50 states.
  • From 1974 to 1994 (the last hotly contested gubernatorial campaign in the state), contributions to Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidates rose by 378 percent after adjusting for inflation, reaching almost $46 million by 1994.
  • In the Philadelphia mayoral primaries this year, six candidates raised about $15 million.
  • In primaries for Allegheny County Executive, four candidates raised almost $2 million.

Money makes a big difference to the outcomes of elections.

  • The candidate who raised the most money won the general election in 17 out of 18 contested Pennsylvania congressional districts in 1998.

The wealthy contribute disproportionately to campaigns.

  • In the 1994 gubernatorial elections, 92 contributors accounted for 40 percent of the money received by Democrat Mark Singel; 74 contributors accounted for 29 percent of the money received by Republican Tom Ridge.
  • From 1986 through 1992, 52 percent of individual contributors to Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidates held a management position in business or finance, while 22 percent were lawyers.

Political Participation

  • Nationally, voter registration in non-presidential congressional election years declined from 70 percent to 63 percent between 1966 and 1994 and voter turnout declined from 55 percent to 45 percent.
  • In Pennsylvania, voter turnout in presidential election years declined from 68 percent in 1964 to 49 percent in 1996. Pennsylvania voter registration declined from 81 percent to 66 percent between 1964 and 1992, before rising to 74 percent after implementation of the “Motor Voter” law.
  • In presidential election years in the 1960s, Pennsylvania voter turnout was four to eight percentage points above the national level. Since 1972, turnout has been virtually the same in Pennsylvania and the nation as a whole.
  • In 1996, only 55 percent of people in the bottom 16 percent of the income distribution said that they voted, while 97 percent of those in the top 4 percent said they voted.


Confidence in Government

            Survey data show that Americans have become less confident in their democracy in the last three decades. Confidence in American democracy is highest among the rich and lowest among middle-class people.

  • More than 60 percent of Americans agreed in 1996 with the statement “Public officials don’t care much what people like me think.” Only 34 percent agreed in 1966.
  • Seventy percent of Americans now think the government is “run by a few big interests,” compared with 29 percent in 1964.

Electoral Competition

            State legislative elections in Pennsylvania often fail to give voters any meaningful choices because there is only one candidate on the ballot.

  • In 1998, 87 percent of state House of Representatives primaries and 94 percent of all state Senate primaries had only one candidate.
  • In general elections in 1998, 38 percent of state House elections and 28 percent of state Senate elections featured unopposed candidates.
  • Among seven Northeastern and Midwestern states, only Illinois had a higher percentage of uncontested elections than Pennsylvania.

Revitalizing Democracy in Pennsylvania

            Since the 1960s, the United States and Pennsylvania have become less egalitarian and less democratic. These trends should not make Pennsylvanians give up hope about the possibility for improving democracy and reducing inequality. A drift toward oligarchy—even one that is several decades old—can be arrested. A revitalization of democracy can replace government of, by, and for the comfortable with government of, by, and for all the people.

            The time for revitalization is now, before inequalities in power and money permanently impair democracy. Our recommended changes in state policy would make democracy healthier.

  • Reduce the influence of money on the political process. Following the lead of Maine, Massachusetts, and Arizona, Pennsylvania should adopt a system of public financing of political campaigns for any candidate who demonstrates sufficient support and who agrees to voluntary spending limits.
  • Improve voter turnout by making voting easier. Like some other states, Pennsylvania should allow voting by mail and/or allow voter registration on Election Day.
  • Improve access to government information by reforming the state’s Right-to-Know Act. The Act should require that government agencies respond to requests for information in a timely manner and without placing unnecessary obstacles in the path of people who make requests.
  • Increase electoral competition by making minor-party and independent candidates viable choices for voters.

Independence Day in Pennsylvania should be a time of celebration but also one of reflection. Recent economic and political trends have weakened democracy. The continued nobility of our democratic experiment requires us to recognize its weaknesses and repair them.

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