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The People’s Choice
by Lionel E. Deimel

Probably the most important election held in Pennsylvania yesterday was for the Democratic Party nomination for the Senate, that is, for the right to run against incumbent Republican Senator Rick Santorum. The winner, from a field of six, was Ron Klink, who received 41% of the vote. In fact, the race was, for all practical purposes, a three-way race between Klink, Allyson Schwartz, and Tom Foley. Schwartz received 26% of the vote, Foley received 25%, and the other candidates combined pulled 8%. There is a good chance that this election thwarted the will of the people.

In Louisiana, when I was growing up, primary elections were usually called “first primaries” because, if no candidate received 50% or more of the vote, the top two candidates had to stand for a runoff election or “second primary.” The courts have X mark largely rid the land of second primaries, based on the argument that the system makes it difficult for minorities (that is, blacks) to win elections in competition with whites. In a primary with one black and many whites, the argument goes, blacks will try to elect their candidate. If the black candidate achieves only a plurality, however, he is sure to loose if pitted against the second-place white candidate. The assumptions behind this reasoning are both cynical and undemocratic, but this isn’t the issue I really want to argue.

Let’s return to the Pennsylvania election. Klink distinguished himself from Schwartz and Foley as being a social conservative. Political observers generally agreed that Schwartz and Foley were the “liberal” candidates. This being the case, it is fair to say that Foley voters would likely prefer Schwartz to Klink, and Schwartz voters would likely prefer Foley to Klink. More than half the electorate preferred one of the major liberal candidates to the conservative Klink. It is virtually certain, therefore, that Schwartz would have beaten Klink in a second primary. The irony of a system that allows victory by plurality is that adding candidates with majority views to an election with a single candidate of minority views makes it more likely that the minority-view candidate will win the election. This has nothing to do with race and everything to do with democracy.

What the Klink victory means in November is anybody’s guess. Apparently, the Klink camp argues that running a social conservative against ultraconservative Santorum will “neutralize” the social issues, thus giving Klink the edge by virtue of the good “Democratic” economy. More likely, it deprives the electorate of an attractive centrist alternative and gives the edge to the Republican incumbent. Democracy isn’t always as democratic as it seems to be.

— LED, 4/5/2000

Update, 5/21/2016. Ron Klink did indeed fail to unseat Rick Santorum in November 2000. He lost by 5 points.

 

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