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How to beef up 'off-year' elections

| Friday, March 22, 2013, 8:57 p.m.

When Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale appeared at the Pennsylvania Press Club, he spoke of the frustrations of running for a low-profile statewide office in a presidential election year. On the night of the televised debate with his GOP opponent, even his wife didn't tune in. Voters didn't tune in, either, despite the fact the auditor general is the state's top fiscal watchdog.

Even today, months after taking office, it is unlikely most Pennsylvanians could identify DePasquale as auditor general or Rob McCord, now in his second term as state Treasurer. Those positions, among the oldest elected posts in the commonwealth, carry enormous responsibility for ensuring the smooth and honest expenditure of billions in tax dollars. The constitutional state offices, often referred to as “row offices,” also include the Pennsylvania attorney general.

Auditor general, treasurer and attorney general are significantly important positions by virtue of the powers vested in each and by their impact on the political process. Despite this, only races for attorney general have demonstrated the ability to cut through the clamor of presidential and often U.S. Senate campaigns and attract any amount of voter attention.

Let us step forward to this year's elections. Barring an unexpected congressional vacancy, no national office will appear on a ballot in Pennsylvania. There is no presidential campaign, no U.S. Senate campaign, no congressional campaigns. The only statewide office on the ballot is for a seat on the state Superior Court.

A handful of counties will elect county officials, although for most of the state's 67 counties, commissioners won't appear on the ballot until 2015. Most of the action this year is at the local level for municipal and school district races.

In political parlance, this is an “off-year” election. That's an unfortunate description, given the importance of county, municipal and school board elections. In the four-year election cycle, this would be considered the electoral low point. Voter turnout, at more than 59 percent in Pennsylvania last year, will struggle to hit a quarter of the electorate in many precincts this year.

Here's a suggestion: Amend the state Constitution so the offices of attorney general, auditor general and treasurer are filled by voters in the year after a presidential election. This simple change in scheduling would transform those three races from an afterthought to starring role. Candidates for these positions would not need to compete for attention, campaign workers, money and media attention with the presidential race.

Simply put, the focus would be on them.

Such a move would produce two positive effects. First, the enhanced role of the state row-office campaigns would result in better public understanding of the jobs these officials perform and an electorate more informed about the candidates' qualifications and policy positions.

Second, having statewide offices on the ballot in an “off year” would generate voter interest and improve turnout. That would benefit candidates running for election at all levels of government.

Lowman Henry is chairman and CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal.

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