Note: The following op-ed comes courtesy of Rocky Bleier, a Vietnam War veteran and former Notre Dame and Steelers standout running back, who currently serves as honorary co-chair of Ballot PA Vets Leadership.
According to Pew Research, almost 1 in 2 veterans consider themselves political independents, but in Pennsylvania, registering as an independent prevents you from voting in primary elections.
Imagine explaining to a Pennsylvania veteran registered as an independent that they can’t vote in a primary election. They can’t vote for a governor who oversees the National Guard. They can’t vote for members of Congress who could authorize a war. They can’t vote for a Commander-in-Chief who could ask them to lay their life on the line for their country.
It’s simply un-American, and it’s unfair.
When I served in Vietnam, many of my fellow soldiers couldn’t vote. They weren’t old enough at the time when the voting age was 21. We could fight and die for our country, but couldn’t elect our leaders. That changed with the passage of the 26th Amendment, dropping the eligibility age for voting to 18.
It’s time to repeal closed primaries so we can give a stronger voice to the thousands of veterans whose experience and values do not fit squarely into a partisan box.
Why are so many veterans independents? It makes perfect sense. Men and women in the military take an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” That oath is not conditioned on whether Republicans or Democrats are in power – the oath speaks to a larger national purpose.
In addition, the political activities of the active military are limited by various directives and guidelines. These rules are based on the critical notion that in our democracy, there must be a clear line separating military and political power. But there are more practical reasons why active military and vets register as independents. Military members are stationed all over the country or worldwide during their service. Active duty military, and their spouses, may choose to register as independents because it simplifies their voting behavior. Rather than figuring out the local political landscape in every community they’re stationed in, military members can simply choose to register as independents.
In 41 states, registering as an independent voter doesn’t deprive a voter of their right to participate in all elections. That political affiliation likely continues when their military service ends.
All of this is even more troubling because of Pennsylvania’s military service history and our veteran population. There are roughly 800,000 veterans in Pennsylvania – one of the largest concentrations of any state in the country. Using the earlier mentioned Pew Research, that means 400,000 veterans in Pennsylvania are likely registered independents.
Can anyone justify depriving 400,000 Pennsylvania veterans of the right to vote?
What’s worse is that every primary election in Pennsylvania costs taxpayers nearly $20 million, so independents – many of whom are veterans – are paying for a primary election that shuts them out.
With all of the sacrifices our veterans have made, this is just wrong.
Our elected officials have the opportunity to right this wrong this year. The 2022 primary already came and went. Another election prevented thousands of veterans from having their voices heard. With the general election quickly approaching, and the number of session days in Harrisburg limited, our leaders should prioritize repealing closed primaries so that no veteran – and no Pennsylvanian – is blocked from voting in a primary election because of their values or beliefs.
Whatever the historical reasons for this ill-considered policy, taking away a veteran’s right to vote because they choose not to join a political party is too high a price to pay.
Let every veteran vote in every election!