Turnout in off-year elections is traditionally low, but the court elections this year could have major consequences.
This is an off-year for elections in most of the country, but in Pennsylvania there are important judicial questions on the ballot. There are candidates for Philadelphia District Attorney and new judges on the Court of Common Pleas and Municipal Court, and the state Supreme, Superior, and Commonwealth Courts.
In addition, justices on the PA Superior Court and Commonwealth Court are up for retention, extending their terms. In Philadelphia, some judges on the Municipal and Common Pleas Courts are up for retention votes as well.
Turnout in off-year elections is traditionally low, but the court elections this year could have major consequences if there is controversial legislation, or if a party decides to challenge the midterm election results. In the November presidential election, more than 749,000 ballots were cast in Philadelphia, both in-person and by mail. In the May 2021 primary, about a third of those voters turned out, with 224,297 ballots cast by 1,053,467 registered voters.
Retention election ballots are sometimes more difficult for voters to understand.
After the initial election to the bench, there is a vote every 10 years to confirm a judge should be retained – not reelected. Because these judges run unopposed, no party affiliation is listed for retention candidates. Unlike new candidates, sitting judges do not conduct campaigns, and cannot discuss cases that have appeared before them. But there are ways to research the candidates.
The Committee of Seventy has a Voter Guide to all Philadelphia and state elections. Enter your address and see a customized result, including the location of your voting booth. ballot.seventy.org
The Philadelphia Bar Association’s Judicial Commission rates judges (judges.philadelphiabar.org) for Philadelphia seats plus the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Superior Court and Commonwealth Court. (With one footnote: For Appellate Court candidates, the Judicial Commission has adopted the ratings of the Pennsylvania Bar Association Judicial Evaluation Commission for Philadelphia-based candidates only.)
The Montgomery County Bar Association has a similar service, though not as detailed. An August 26, 2021 news release recommended two judges for retention on that county’s Court of Common Pleas, Thomas C. Branca and Richard P. Haaz.
Resources for researching judges on the ballot: Ballotpedia.org has details on judges for all of the state, with specific reports for Philadelphia and Montgomery Counties. Spotlight PA (spotlightpa.org) has reports on the top statewide seats. WHYY had “A voter’s guide to 2021 court elections in Bucks, Montco, Delco, and Chester counties” during the May primary, detailing some of the controversies in nearby county seats.
As always, the reliability of political information, online or elsewhere, can be hard to take at face value; parties, political action committees, and social media sources should be cross-checked against other sources.
There are four questions on the ballot: One on legalizing cannabis, and three on funding city departments through amendments to the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter. Question two is a request to make the existing Department of Fleet Management permanent; Three would allow departments to consider more than the top two candidates for a civil service position; and Four would provide for a mandatory annual appropriation of $25 million for the Housing Trust Fund.
October 26 is the deadline to apply for a mail-in ballot in person or at vote.pa.gov. Check your registration status or find a Philadelphia polling place at seventy.org/find-your-polling-place. November 2 is Election Day.
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