Sunday, April 14, 2024

Informing Your Conscience in “Off Year” Elections

Elections in odd numbered years are sometimes described as “off year.” Instead of voting for a prominent national office, governor, Congress or the state legislature, we elect municipal officials and “lesser known” statewide offices. On May 18, 2021, Pennsylvanians will select or retain state justices and judges for our Commonwealth Courts.

We will also have the opportunity to weigh in on three constitutional questions. Two of these will impact the balance of power between the Executive and Legislative branches of state government. While the Church does not weigh in on these matters, clearly the third proposed constitutional amendment prohibiting discrimination based on race or true ethnicity is a value the Church supports.

In terms of the judicial races, while they might not attract as much attention, this year the election is anything but “off.” Electing qualified, capable and value-minded judges is just as important as electing the right governor or lawmakers. As part of our checks and balances system, the courts are the third equal branch of state government. Their role is to preserve the rule of law and guarantee the rights and liberties of citizens. Disputes are brought before the court seeking a fair resolution that upholds the Constitutions of Pennsylvania and the United States of America. Judges make decisions that affect everyone, including who has a right to life, the freedom of religion, and many other important questions.

The challenge with judicial elections is finding information about the candidates on which to base your voting decision. Although federal court rulings clarified that candidates can talk about issues, out of fear that their comments might prejudice future court cases, candidates for judicial office often do not share their personal positions on controversial issues. However, many special interest organizations evaluate candidates based on their record or other public evidence of their philosophy. These groups often endorse one candidate over another.

We can understand a lot about candidates by reviewing their lists of endorsements. Catholics might be interested in a candidate’s stand on human life, school choice, religious freedom, social justice or other issues. An endorsement from the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation or Planned Parenthood, for example, gives us a clue about whether a candidate is pro-life or pro-abortion. The support of public education associations or taxpayer watchdog groups could, although not absolutely, shed light on how a candidate might feel about school choice. Endorsements from other like-minded political leaders who do speak out about issues can also provide insight into the philosophy of the candidate. It is said a person is known “by the company that he or she keeps.”

Every voter should take time to research the candidates. Many non-partisan organizations such as the League of Women Voters or your local newspaper publish voter guides, often including endorsements. The Pennsylvania Family Institute publishes a voter guide that touches on many issues that are also important to Catholics. But the most effective way to research is to contact the candidates themselves. Most judicial candidates have their own websites which proudly list the endorsements they received. Their campaign headquarters will also give this information upon request.

Who we elect to the bench sets the stage for how rights, liberties and justice will be upheld in public policy. During this “off year” election, we have a responsibility to elect judges who will be fair, responsible and “on target” to represent the values that make Pennsylvania great.

(The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference is the public affairs arm of the state’s Catholic bishops. Visit the PCC’s website at

Pennsylvania Catholic Conference

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