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Pa. election 2024: A guide to vetting primary legislative candidates

by Stephen Caruso of Spotlight PA |

The dome of the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg.
Amanda Berg / For Spotlight PA

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HARRISBURG — This year, all Pennsylvania House representatives and half of state senators will be on the ballot.

These races receive less media attention than top-of-the-ballot ones, such as those for president and U.S. Senate. That’s why Spotlight PA has compiled this guide to help you evaluate which candidates you want to send to or keep in Harrisburg.

Those positions come with a six-digit base salary, perks such as per diems, and the ability to hire a full-time staff. In return, legislators are expected to act as a front door to state government. They also work with their elected colleagues to solve problems and represent their constituents' interests.

Keep reading to learn more about how to vet both incumbent lawmakers as well as candidates hoping to win office:

How to vet incumbent legislative candidates

Use this tool to find out who your legislators are. Reminder: All state representatives will stand for election this year, while only state senators in odd-numbered districts will be on the ballot.

Each state House and state Senate lawmaker has a web page that lists every legislative memo they’ve circulated (under “co-sponsorship memoranda”) and bill they’ve signed on to this session (under “sponsored legislation”).

Alex Garlick, a University of Vermont professor who studies American legislatures, said you can understand a lawmaker’s priorities by looking at the legislation they back.

There are a few other ways to evaluate lawmakers, though all have pros and cons, Garlick said.

For instance, you could count how many bills introduced by a lawmaker became law. But that method alone isn’t sufficient, Garlick said, “because a lot of bills fail along the way.”

Bills that move through the Pennsylvania legislature are often rewritten, meaning what becomes law may be completely unrelated to what was introduced. Also, sometimes a lawmaker's bill gets absorbed into a larger measure.

Most rank-and-file lawmakers — especially those in the minority party — don’t have the power to ensure their bills are considered. That ability belongs to committee chairs and members of the majority leadership team, who make these decisions based on their own priorities.

How a lawmaker votes on bills, however, can be informative. Do they buck party lines? Do they abstain from politically tricky measures? Do they prioritize unity?

Both chambers have advanced some weighty proposals over the past year. You can see how your lawmakers voted by clicking the below links.

Major initiatives considered by the state House over the past year include:

Major initiatives considered by the state Senate over the past year include:

  • A proposed omnibus constitutional amendment that would give survivors of childhood sexual abuse a two-year window to file lawsuits, require people to show ID every time they vote, and make it easier for the legislature to override regulations.

  • A measure that would make the state permitting more transparent and require agencies to grant permits if they fail to respond within their timelines.

  • A proposal that would allow police to pull a driver over solely for using their phone.

  • A bill that would ban safe injection sites in Philadelphia.

  • A bill that created a special prosecutor to tackle SEPTA crime.

  • A bill that would require school districts to catalog every book that includes “sexually explicit content.”

  • A measure that would require electric vehicle owners to pay a $290 fee annually to the state Department of Transportation for highway funding.

  • A bill that would move the state’s 2024 primary election.

  • A measure that would require every school to have at least one full-time armed security guard.

  • The 2023 state budget deal.

You can also understand a legislator's values by looking at the organizations that support them. As of April 10, the following notable organizations have endorsed candidates in some races:

Other groups do not endorse candidates, instead recommending or not recommending a candidate based on their position on a particular issue:

Other organizations issue “report cards” that grade lawmakers on their votes. These report cards inherently reflect the organization and its values; groups in the same advocacy space, such as gun rights, may issue different grades to the same lawmaker. Some report cards note which votes the organizations considered:

Other organizations, such as the environmental group Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania, and the National Federation of Independent Businesses, plan to release grades for the current legislative session later this year. You can find their respective scorecards from last session here and here.

How to vet legislative candidates who aren’t incumbents

For legislative candidates who aren’t incumbents, the best way to start your research is through the search engine of your choice.

A candidate’s official campaign website or Facebook page often includes a bio, information about their priorities, and noteworthy endorsements from politicians and organizations.

The organizations referenced above may endorse candidates who aren’t incumbents based on internal interviews or questionnaires.

Other groups, such as the conservative Pennsylvania Family Institute, skip endorsements or grades, and instead publish surveys in which candidates, both incumbents and nonincumbents, are asked questions about their priorities.

The nonpartisan League of Women Voters Education Fund also publishes questionnaires for all legislative candidates.

Local chapters of that organization — as well as news outlets, business groups, and local political committees — may host candidate forums or debates. These events allow you to see candidates interact in real time and may allow you to meet them in person.

Checking campaign finance records online through the Pennsylvania Department of State allows you to see which people and groups fund a candidate. It’s best to search by last name.

Donations are divided by size on the report, and by whether the money came from an individual or a political action committee associated with a corporation, union, or other interest group.

Legislators are required to file their first campaign finance report for the cycle by April 12.

BEFORE YOU GO… If you learned something from this article, pay it forward and contribute to Spotlight PA at Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

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