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Pa's 12th District U.S. House Special Election Date Draws Criticism

Democratic candidate Marc Friedenberg (left); Republican candidate Fred Keller (right).
Min Xian; Pennsylvania House of Representatives
WPSU; Pennsylvania House of Representatives
Democratic candidate Marc Friedenberg (left); Republican candidate Fred Keller (right).

Pennsylvania’s 12th district special election will be held May 21, the same day as the municipal primaries. It’s just weeks after Penn State students will have left for summer break.

Democratic candidate Marc Friedenberg says the timing of the election means most college students will have to vote absentee if they vote at all.

“We’re going to be pushing in helping students to navigate the absentee ballot process, which can be a little bit tricky,” Friedenberg said. 

Friedenberg is a Penn State professor of Information Sciences and Technology. He said voting absentee, which requires mailing a ballot, could be a barrier for a demographic that rarely sends mail.

After Republican Representative Tom Marino left his position for health reasons shortly after his fifth term started, Democratic Governor Tom Wolf set the special election’s date to be the same day as the primaries.

The 12th district is a solidly red seat that Marino won last November with 66 percent support. Considering most college students vote democratic, Friedenberg says the timing of the election is a disadvantage.

“I think it’s disenfranchisement," Friedenberg said. "It’s voter suppression to have this special election be timed when a significant percentage of the population is going to be out of district even though they’re registered to vote here.”

Centre County Republicans Chairwoman Kris Eng said the timing isn’t ideal for Republicans either.

“We would’ve liked to have pushed it out further and later into the summer," Eng said. "But the reality is, it’s logical to have it then. Otherwise, the county would spend so much money having yet another election.”

Because of the large field of potential candidates, the Republicans had to spend time selecting a candidate while the Democrats were already campaigning. Eng says the timing of the special election isn’t perfect for anyone, but it is what it is.

“Not everybody is going to be happy with every decision but, you know, that’s the way it goes,” Eng said. 

Eng says the Republicans are in the process of planning outreach efforts to make more people aware of Fred Keller, the Republican candidate.

Keller has been a State House Representative for the 85th district, which includes parts of Union and Snyder counties, since 2011. He previously was the plant operations manager at Conestoga Wood Specialties, where he worked for 25 years.

“We’re actually right now setting up the game plan and working with people at the state level and getting Fred’s schedule together, so we’ll be doing phone calls and getting the Young Republicans activated and working to do door-to-door,” Eng said. 

Eng added that she hopes Keller will visit Penn State’s campus to share conservative views with students and keep them engaged in the election process. 

“Having someone come in and work with the kids on Penn State since that is part of the 12th district, and part of his district then, so in making sure that they’re supported and engaged and part of the process, not just in elections, but promoting conservatism on the campus," Eng said. 

Chairman of the Centre County Democrats Greg Stewart said the election’s timing could increase voter turnout among long-term residents, compared to if it were held separate from the primaries.

“Because it’s on the same day that people are accustomed to voting across the district, that’ll probably increase turnout, because people were already planning to vote in the primary.”

Stewart said a separate challenge with the special election’s date is communicating that anyone can vote, while that’s not the case with the primaries.

“In a special election, everybody can vote, whether you’re an independent, green party, jedi party like we have in Centre County here,” Stewart said.