Democracy in Pennsylvania - 2018

Jonathan White
Stephen Herzenberg
Publication Date: 
July 2, 2018


Nineteen years ago, in advance of the July 4th celebration of the birth of our nation, Keystone Research Center issued a report on “Democracy in Pennsylvania.”  The report put two well-known facts next to one another: the gap between the haves and have-nots and the importance of money in politics. It raised the question: could the interaction of economic inequality and the increasing importance of money in politics threaten Pennsylvania’s democratic ideals?  Does money in politics and the growing concentration of income and wealth block policymakers from enacting public policies that address the needs and concerns of middle- and lower-income Pennsylvanians? Are we at risk of replacing democracy of, by, and for the people with a political system responsive primarily to an economic elite dominated by big corporations and narrowly self-interested donors? 

This year, we revisit these basic questions with the futures of America’s, and Pennsylvania’s, democracies hanging even more in the balance. Today, the income and wealth gap between the haves and the have-nots yawn even wider and the importance of money in politics has grown inexorably. More so in Pennsylvania than most states, these trends have been coupled with an unprecedented effort by the majority party in the state legislature — the party most allied with big corporations and the 1% — to draw legislative district lines that establish and help maintain political power beyond the majority party’s level of voter support. It has also been accompanied by efforts to enact laws (e.g., the Voter ID law rejected by the Pennsylvania courts) that would further erode turnout among low-income people and lawmakers’ responsiveness to working families.

Yet alongside indicators of further erosion of our democracy there have come signs that “we the people“ of Pennsylvania want to reclaim our politics. Through the courts, Pennsylvania citizens and the League of Women Voters successfully challenged our state’s unfair congressional districts which since 2011 have allowed Republicans to win 13 out of 18 seats with only a bit more than half the total vote in all 18 races. Across the state, grass roots citizens groups — sometimes called “indivisible” and “resistance” groups and now networked through “PA Together” — have sprouted up, seeking to hold federal and state lawmakers and candidates accountable. In primary elections for Pennsylvania state House and Senate seats in 2018, 25% more people ran for office, a symptom of the urgency at the grass roots level about the need to change the direction of our state.

This report has two main themes. The first is that Pennsylvania’s democracy is not healthy, as measured by the amount of money in politics, electoral competition (do voters have choices in primary and general elections?), political participation (e.g. voter turnout), and confidence in government. The second is that the citizens of Pennsylvania still have the power to revitalize their democracy. Many are already trying to do that. We applaud their efforts and urge others to join them by making sure they register to vote, show up on election days, and seek out other opportunities to participate and have a voice. Opportunities and movements that can reverse Pennsylvania’s drift towards oligarchy and revitalize democracy do not come along often. We urge Pennsylvanians to grab the chance that exists this year, and over the next several years, before the responsiveness of our state’s government to “the people” and the common good is lost permanently.

Wealth, Income Inequality, and Political Influence

Wealth can translate into political influence through direct contributions to political candidates and through investment in political lobbying. It can allow wealthy individuals to run for office by “self-funding” their campaigns. The corrosive impact of wealth inequality on our democracy is greater now because wealth inequality is approaching the level at its peak in U.S. history just before the 1929 stock market crash. Since 1978, the share of wealth held by the top 1% in the United States has risen from 23% to 42%.  Most of the 18-percentage-point increase in the top 1% wealth share has accrued to just the top one-tenth of one percent (0.1%) — or one out of every 1,000 Americans. The members of this group have a minimum of $20.6 million in wealth and some are worth many billions. Even on the inflated scale of today’s money in politics, the members of this tiny “donor class” can have a major impact on political races with a negligible dent in their wealth, in some cases earning back much bigger amounts in the form of lower taxes or other changes in policies. 

Money and Politics

Pennsylvania has some of the weakest campaign finance laws in the country. It imposes no limitations on the amount of money that individuals, political action committees (PACs), and state parties can contribute to candidates — one of only 10 states without any of these limits  — and does not restrict the amount individuals and corporations can contribute to PACs.

The average amount of campaign contributions to Pennsylvania Senate candidates has more than tripled in inflation-adjusted dollars since 1998, from about $230,000 to just over $700,000.  The increase in state House races has been smaller — a 60% rise from $67,000 in 1998 to $107,000 in 2016. Notwithstanding the rise in small donor contributions to some candidates (e.g., Bernie Sanders), “non-individuals” (which includes political action committees set up by corporations, labor, industry and professional associations) now account for about 70% of contributions. They accounted for less than half in 1998. To take a specific example, from 2007 through 2017 the natural gas industry contributed $10 million to Pennsylvania political candidates.  It also spent $67.8 million lobbying against regulations, a severance tax, community safety, and clean energy incentives.  

At the national level, a major shift has been a decline in contributions from labor political action committees relative to corporate. In 1978, labor PACs contributed more to congressional candidates than corporate PACS. By 2016, corporate PACs were contributing 3.91 times as much. In Pennsylvania, there is no clear trend in labor vs. corporate contributions since the late 1970s.

While it will not directly impact PAC contributions (which cannot come from union dues or “fair share” payments from nonmembers), the Janus v. AFSCME decision announced by the U.S. Supreme Court on June 27 could reduce the voice of labor unions in public policy. The court decided 5-4 to reverse a longstanding precedent that public sector workers represented by a union who are not members can be required to pay a “fair share” towards the union’s costs of that representation. The decision will likely reduce labor union’s resources available to fight for policy priorities that generally benefit working families.

Electoral Competition

Electoral competition — having two or more candidates to choose from in a primary or general election — is one of the defining features of a vibrant democracy.  From the 1940s to the 1970s, Pennsylvania enjoyed significant choice in state legislative races. Fewer than 5% of state legislative incumbents had uncontested general elections. By contrast:

From 2010 to 2016, 40% of state Senate incumbents and 45% of state House incumbents faced no general election opponent. 

Over the past four decades, incumbents running for state House and Senate elections lose reelection less than 5% of the time — down from a third in state Senate seats in the 1930s. 

Four times out of five, state legislative incumbents over the past 40 years have won their general election races by big margins with at least 60% of the vote. Primary elections also have low amounts of electoral competition in Pennsylvania. 

In 2016, 92% of state legislative races had an incumbent and 86% of those incumbents ran unopposed in their party’s primary. Both figures are about 10 percentage points higher than national averages for state legislatures.  

In a break with long-term trends, the 2018 primary elections offered a hint of an increase in electoral competition, likely due to the rise of local citizen “resistance” and “indivisible” groups after the 2016 election of President Trump. The number of candidates in the 228 state legislative races (25 Senate and 203 House) jumped by 97, 25% more than in the 2016 number. 

There was also a rise in the share of primary elections that were contested. 

Partisan Gerrymandering and Electoral Competition

One factor that contributed to reduced electoral competition in Pennsylvania in the last two decades is “gerrymandering” — the redrawing of legislative district lines to create and maintain a partisan advantage. Earlier this year, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the 2011 Pennsylvania congressional districts “clearly, plainly, and palpably violate[d] the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.” This could occur because the state legislature had the authority to redraw congressional district lines after the 2010 U.S. Census via a simple bill in the Pennsylvania legislature. At the time of redistricting, the governor, and the Senate and House majorities were all Republican. The new districts drawn after the 2010 U.S. Census concentrated (“packed”) Democrats into five congressional districts with a large majority of Democrats and then divided up (“cracked”) the remaining Democrats across 13 districts that were difficult for a Democrat to win. 

Reflecting the gerrymander, in the last three congressional elections Republicans won 13 out of 18 Pennsylvania congressional seats even while the aggregate vote for Republican candidates across all 18 districts was only just above 50%.  Academic estimates of the “efficiency gap” — the number of Democratic votes “wasted” relative to Republican votes — also show a substantial increase in gerrymandering with the 2011 congressional districts. 

State House and Senate districts were redrawn by a “Legislative Reapportionment Commission,” consisting of the four caucus floor leaders and Republican chairman Stephen J. McEwan Jr., appointed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.  Since 2010, Republicans have won 61% of state Senate seats with an aggregate of 52% of the vote and 58% of state House seats with an aggregate of 51% of the vote. “Efficiency gap” estimates also indicate some degree of gerrymandering in the state Senate seats and less evidence of that in state House seats.

Political Participation

For ordinary citizens, voting is the most common way of participating in the political process. In Pennsylvania, voter turnout declined steadily from the 1960s to the 1990s before rebounding in presidential election years since 1996 but not in gubernatorial election years. 

Turnout was 70% in the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon election but dipped below 50% in the 1996 Clinton-Dole race. Turnout in presidential election years has recovered to about 60% in the five most recent presidential election years. 

Turnout in gubernatorial election years started lower, just above 60% in 1962, but fell to just 35% of registered voters in 2014. 

Based on American National Election Survey data (conducted from the 1950s to 2012), affluent people (in the top 5% for income) are more likely than middle- and lower-income people to vote, seek to influence others to vote, and, by margins of two-to-one or three-to-one, donate to a candidate’s campaign, work for a campaign, etc. 

Confidence in Government

National survey data also show that confidence in government declined steadily from 1964 and 1980 — and has never recovered. 

For example, two-thirds of Americans thought “government is run for the benefit of all the people” in 1964, whereas 80% now (in 2012) think it is “run by a few big interests.” 

The erosion of confidence in government holds up across all income groups with the partial exception of the top 5%. (The survey does not have a big enough sample of the top 1% to report that separately.) 

In Pennsylvania, a recent Franklin and Marshall poll found overwhelming (77%) support for changing the way campaigns are financed and two-thirds support (64%) for changing the way state legislative districts are created. Citizens know that their lawmakers are not responsive to them and that two of the reasons are money in politics and gerrymandering.

Closing Pennsylvania’s Democracy Gap

A striking disjuncture exists in Pennsylvania between the priorities of the people of Pennsylvania and the priorities and actions of our current state legislature. 

As shown by a recent poll for the “We the People Pennsylvania” campaign, Pennsylvanians overwhelmingly support a higher state minimum wage, a severance tax on natural gas, more funding for our schools, free college tuition, a tax system under which corporations and the 1% pay their fair share, and legislative districts drawn by a truly independent commission. 

Under the current legislative leadership, however, Pennsylvania:

is the only state in the region without a minimum wage above the miserly federal $7.25 per hour;

is the only major natural gas-producing state without a severance tax that requires companies to pay more based on the amount of gas they extract;

has only grudgingly restored nominal K-12 school funding after the devastating 2011 cuts;

so underfunds our colleges that Pennsylvania ranks dead last for higher education according to U.S. News and World Report, sunk by a combination of high tuition and mushrooming student debt;

refuses to close corporate tax loopholes that allow big corporations to pay little or nothing so smaller businesses and individuals have to pay more;

and continues to try to retain legislative control over the redistricting process.

The argument of this report is that the disjuncture between what the people want and what the people get results from our state’s deep “democracy deficit.” To bring the policies above in line with the people’s priorities, we the people of Pennsylvania are going to have to close the state’s democracy deficit. 

The end of this report highlights four ways to do that.

Improve voter turnout by making it easier to vote – Simple reforms are already working in other states such as automatic voter registration when citizens turn 18 and no-fault absentee balloting.  

Reduce the influence of money in politics – Cap the amount of money individuals and corporations can donate to PACs and pursue publicly financed elections with voluntary spending limits.

Increase electoral competition by ending gerrymandering – Create a truly nonpartisan redistricting committee to end anti-democratic practices that allow politicians to amass shares of legislative seats and partisan political power that far outstrip their actual support among the people — a deep and grievous violation of the basic democratic principle of “one person-one vote.”

Resist policies that would further entrench an undemocratic political system – Examples of such policies are Voter ID, automatic removal of people from the rolls of people who haven’t voted recently, and restrictions on voting by the formerly incarcerated who have paid their debt to society.)

Pennsylvania was the birthplace of American democracy. Our founders crafted the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in Philadelphia. The Battle of Gettysburg helped turn the tide of the Civil War and preserve the union so that “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from this earth.”

Beginning this year, 2018, the time has come for the people of Pennsylvania to embrace their shared heritage by restoring our state’s democracy. That is the only way we can achieve an economy and a democracy that work for all.