Primary day is usually a cut-and-dried affair: Democrats vote for Democrats, Republicans vote for Republicans, and that’s that.
But there is nothing normal about Tuesday’s vote in the 12th Congressional District.
For starters, there are two ballots – a special and a primary – for the same congressional seat.
There are six total candidates, but one of them appears only on the special ballot and three others appear only on the primary.
Two candidates will be listed on both.
People registered with third parties or those who are unaffiliated – voters who normally cannot participate in Pennsylvania primaries – can vote Tuesday, but only in the special election.
Got all that?
“I expect there to be some confusion,” said Ray Wrabley, an associate professor of political science at Pitt-Johnstown.
“You’re going to have an unusual ballot situation.”
It’s all due to the February death of longtime U.S. Rep. John Murtha.
That set up a special election to fill the remainder of the congressman’s term (through the end of the year), along with the normal primary election in which voters will choose one Democrat and one Republican to vie for a full, two-year congressional term in the November General Election.
Those two elections didn’t have to occur on the same day. But soon after Murtha’s death, Gov. Ed Rendell decided that the special vote should be held in conjunction with the regularly scheduled primary in order to save counties money.
‘They’ll find it very easy’
The winner of the special election will go to Washington immediately. Three parties’ nominated candidates are to appear on that ballot: Republican Tim Burns, Democrat Mark Critz and Libertarian Demo Agoris.
The primary ballot, along with Critz and Burns, also includes Republican William Russell and Democrats Ryan Bucchianeri and Ron Mackell Jr.
Fred R. Smith, Cambria County’s election director, says he doesn’t believe the two ballots will create any havoc.
Republicans and Democrats can vote in both elections, he noted, while minor-party voters and those who are unaffiliated can cast their vote only in the special election.
“They’ll find it very easy,” Smith said, adding that poll workers can answer any questions.
“Cambria County does more election-school training than any other county in the commonwealth,” Smith said.
Tina Pritts, Smith’s counterpart in Somerset County, said she sees some potential for confusion but also notes that no one has been beating down her door demanding 12th district clarification.
“We have not had many questions on that,” Pritts said.
But, no matter how the logistics play out on Tuesday, there are clear political implications to having two elections for the same office on the same day.
First screen ‘Special’
When Burns and Critz grabbed their spots on the special ballot in March, they immediately were conferred front-runner status even for the primary.
The two candidates have focused only on each other and readily acknowledge that they have not paid much attention to their primary opponents.
“I’m running against Mr. Burns,” Critz said in a recent interview. “The primary hopefully will take care of itself.”
Added Burns: “The entire country is focused on the special election. It’s not just me.”
Also of importance is this fact: The first screen that 12th district voters will see Tuesday is the special ballot.
That complicates things for Russell.
If he wants to garner significant numbers in Tuesday’s primary, he must expect that many Republicans first will pick Burns – their only choice on the special ballot – but then will decide to go with the “William Russell” box a few votes later.
Put another way, GOP voters would have to determine that Burns is the right man to serve the remainder of the year while Russell is the candidate who should have a shot at a full term in the same office.
Wrabley said he has heard Russell supporters use this logic: Russell is a better choice in the primary because, if Burns loses the special vote to Critz, the GOP faithful wouldn’t want Burns facing Critz again in November.
“I think that’s a tough sell,” Wrabley said.
Russell has his own sales pitch, saying it is a “safe vote” for Republicans to choose two GOP candidates on the same day.
The two other Democrats in the mix, already at a significant disadvantage due to the substantial party backing and money flowing to Critz, also know the double-ballot situation is not helping their cause.
Bucchianeri has logged thousands of miles traveling across the sprawling 12th district, hoping to connect with voters who will choose him regardless of the special ballot.
“When I talk to people throughout the district, a number of them never even raised the idea of a special election,” Bucchianeri said.
Mackell believes some voters may be turned off by the way the Democratic and Republican parties chose candidates for the special ballot.
“There are a lot of mixed emotions about the way this thing played out,” he said.
“It might not be as cut and dried as Mark and Tim think it is.”
But it’s clear that Critz and Burns see the two elections – and the sole possession of their party’s nomination on the special ballot – as giving them a big advantage over any other candidate.
At a May 5 debate, Burns ended the session this way: “On May 18, you can vote for me twice