With the 2023 election cycle approaching, all eyes will be on which party controls the Bucks County Commissioners’ race next November. Current registration data show that race is too close to call.
As of August 8, 2022, party registrations in Bucks County were as follows: Democrat (42.4%), Republican (40.8%) and Other (16.7%). Since May 2022, the GOP has gained ground on the Democrats. Back in September 2021, the Democrats had 10,485 more voters than the GOP in Bucks County. With a margin now of 7,545 voters between the two parties in August and nearly 80,000 Independent voters in the mix, nothing is for certain when it comes to picking the three most-powerful government leaders in Bucks County.
The Commissioners’ race is also the race where an Independent candidate faces impossible odds. The election law automatically gives the losing major party one seat on the three-person board. Given that Independents cannot run in the primaries, the system virtually guarantees two-party control in Doylestown. But Independent voters will play a big role in picking the 2023 race’s third-place finisher, and it is that candidate who determines if the Democrats or Republicans run the Commissioners’ office.
The past two Commissioners’ races came down to an average of 686 votes between the third-place candidates. And in 2007, Charley Martin beat Steve Santarsierro by just 1,479 votes after a third-party candidate received 5,771 votes.
Here is a brief look back at the Commissioners’ races to 2003, based on county and newspaper records, of that third-place race. In three of the five races, the margins were so close that Independents probably had a big impact.
Third-Places Races for County Commissioner
Robert Harvie (D) 75,197
Robert G. Loughery (R) 74,533
Margin: 644 votes
Charles H. Martin (R) 48,134
Brian Galloway (D) 47,406
Margin: 728 votes
Robert G. Loughery (R) 50,351
Det Ansinn (D) 40,267
Charles H. Martin (R) 50,723
Steven Santarsierro (D) 49,244
Jay Russell (Constitution) 5,771
Charles H. Martin (R) 52,681
Joyce A. Hadley (D) 40,980
Arthur Farnsworth (L) 4,012
Two recent surveys now show that Independent voters are gaining traction as America’s silent third party, and it may be in local elections where they show the most influence.
The Suffolk University/USA Today survey findings from June and July are not shocking: Voters are upset with political party leaders, and they want more choices. In a July 28 Suffolk University national survey, 33.4% of registered voters thought of themselves as “Independent or Other.” That total was ahead of people who identified as Democrats (31.8%) or Republicans (31.2%). Independents viewed the economy as the country’s biggest issue and only 15% thought Democratic and Republican leaders were doing a good job in office. In the national poll, 46% of Independents said they were moderates.
A Suffolk University June state survey showed these frustrations in Pennsylvania. More than 81% of Independents wanted open primaries in Pennsylvania. And their biggest concerns, as in the national polls, were with the economy and inflation (40%).
The registration gap between the Ds and Rs was 7,545 voters. That doesn’t count 80,000 Bucks County voters who are not registered Democrats or Republicans.
It is very possible Independents could play a role in the current races for governor, Congress, and the Senate in Pennsylvania. But they most likely will have the biggest impact on local politics in 2023, where county and municipal elections have smaller voting margins. In Bucks County, where I am a Borough elected official, the official countywide voter registration difference, as of August 8, between Democrats (42.4%) and Republicans (40.9) was 1.5%. In other words, the registration gap between the Ds and Rs was 7,545 voters. That doesn’t count 80,000 Bucks County voters who are not registered Democrats or Republicans.
Another trend from Suffolk University’s national poll showed that among the self-identified Independents, 34% were registered Democrats, while 28% were registered Republicans. If that trend applies to Bucks County, at least 20% of registered Ds or Rs are not necessarily committed to their registered party.
Uncommitted voters can influence local elections: This I have seen from personal experience. In 2021, I was one of three Independent or third-party candidates to win a major municipal race in Bucks County, out of 277 contests. In my Borough Council Ward race, Republicans, Democrats and Independents supported me as a non-partisan candidate. We could see more Independent candidate efforts next year in local races where petition requirements are easier to meet. However, Independent candidates probably are not viable in the countywide races because of campaign costs.
The Independents could swing county races if Democratic and Republican campaigns can reach Independent-minded voters. How that happens remains to be seen, especially when Independent moderates are not happy with extreme positions held by some political leaders. Also, more than 37% of Independents said they mistrusted media sources in the Suffolk national poll, so they may not be easily influenced by traditional media campaign tactics.
Expect the Independents, in their silent way, to be the game changers at a grassroots level.
Scott Bomboy serves on Perkasie Borough Council in Bucks County and has frequently written about election and constitutional issues.
This First Amendment dispute caught my attention last July when a newspaper reporter asked me to comment on the fight between the Pennsbury school board and residents who objected to the board’s diversity policy – and were barred from speaking at the school board meeting’s public forum.
My first thoughts went back to a story I covered in 2018 about Fane Lozman of South Florida. He has been a frequent critic of the Riviera Beach city council, and one night, after Lozman began commenting about local government corruption at the public podium, a council member ordered a police officer to arrest Lozman. Lozman filed his own petition with the United States Supreme Court and won his case. “Lozman’s speech is high in the hierarchy of First Amendment values,” said Justice Anthony Kennedy.
Kennedy was talking about the idea of a public forum, which is the backbone of our free speech rights. For school board and government meetings, the public podium is a “limited public forum,” where a board can limit speech to topics that are related to its current and future business. But it cannot limit speech if the speaker’s viewpoint is disagreeable about those topics. It can only limit the speaker’s time at the podium to ensure the board has enough time to conduct other business.
In September 2021, I had the honor of testifying in Harrisburg about a Bucks County school board dispute and the state’s Sunshine Law. Last week, the dispute in Pennsbury was settled, but will school boards and residents learn from this expensive lesson?
Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Law reinforces these concepts. It also restricts podium access to residents and taxpayers. But the law clearly says that speakers can address issues “that are or may be before the board” at the public podium.
In the Pennsbury case, four residents upset with the school board’s diversity, equity and inclusion policy claimed “board members and designees” stopped them from speaking at the public comment section of Pennsbury school board meetings. According to a federal judge’s decision in November 2021, the school board’s attorney stopped three of the men from speaking because their comments violated school board policies that barred public comments that were “personally directed,” “abusive,” “irrelevant,” “offensive,” “otherwise inappropriate,” “personal attacks,” “intolerant,” “disruptive,” or “verbally abusive.”
“You don’t suppose this kind of thing is ever finished, do you? Tomorrow it’ll be something else, ..Inherit the Wind (1955).From Judge Pratter’s Opinion
The four residents said Pennsbury engaged in viewpoint discrimination, and they won in federal court. Judge Gene Pratter cited one of the Supreme Court’s landmark cases, Texas v. Johnson, the flag burning case, to make her point. “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” Judge Pratter issued an injunction against the Pennsbury public commenting policy in November. Last week, the dispute ended when the Pennsbury school district paid $300,000 in attorneys’ fees and $17.91 to each of the four residents—signifying the year that the First Amendment was ratified.
When I testified in Harrisburg last year, my comments to the joint House-Senate Local Government Committee were about Pennsbury’s deletion of these “objectionable” comments from the publicly published meeting video. The court never ruled on that subject.
So, what is the lesson learned here? To be sure, I have seen incidents where conservative and liberal school boards have censored “objectionable” comments, especially on their official social media and website accounts. It is also unreasonable to expect elected officials, who are volunteers, to be First Amendment experts.
For elected officials, my advice is to make sure a qualified attorney reviews any public commenting policy and ensure your board as a group and your management staff has First Amendment training. Also note that Pennsbury took corrective actions after the incidents but they were not enough to undo the damage in court.
For public commentors, there are ways to make a point without being offensive or disagreeable. But if you feel the need to do so, the Constitution protects your right to have a viewpoint in many cases (true threats, inciting riots, and words meant to provoke an immediate fight are not protected speech). Just make sure to read the meeting’s agenda or the board’s past minutes to stay on topic.
Scott Bomboy serves on borough council in Perkasie Borough, and he has written frequently about government and constitutional topics.