Op-Ed: Bleier Calls for End to Closed Primaries

Rocky Bleier

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!

13 Responses

  1. I am probably the only one commenting who read Rocky’s bio in the 1970’s. Great inspirational book and a gutsy talented player. “Open Primaries” would create a nightmare as we would have two general elections every year. More pressure to raise more money. I am a Democrat. Why would I want to vote in the Republican Primary for Bognet? That knucklehead. Hint: if you want to vote in a R or D primary register R or D. I did and it works.

    1. Winston – Can anyone justify depriving 400,000 Pennsylvania veterans of the right to vote? I’m a Navy veteran and a proud independent voter. Why should I be forced to register with a PRIVATE political party in order to participate in MY PUBLIC / taxpayer funded elections? If parties want to have private conventions or caucuses on their own dime, go right ahead. Enough with all the lame excuses for this modern version of taxation without representation. OPEN OUR PRIMARIES NOW!!!

      1. You’re not being deprived the right to vote. You’re just not allowed to vote for the nominee of a party you aren’t a member of.

        Of course, it’s a fair point to ask why the state funds elections for private parties. But if they took the funding away, the nominees would be chosen by party leadership instead.

        There really isn’t such a thing as an “open primary.” The options are really one of the following:

        1. Instant registration primaries
        2. Non-partisan May election followed by November runoff election
        3. Internal party nomination followed by November election
        4. State-supervised party nominations followed by November election.

        We have #4 currently. Historically, we had #3, and still do in some cases involving late retirements. Recently, PA moved closer to #1 by moving the registration deadline 15 days closer to the election.

        Arguably, allowing day-of registration would be a good idea. But allowing voters to vote in a party they don’t wish to belong to would disenfranchise those who register with a party and participate in it in some small way.

        1. You are very knowledgable about elections and primaries and seem to have considerable insight about the dilemma(s) caused by state-supervised party nominations. It appears to me that the primary/general election system is broken. Do you agree, and if so, what do you suggest would be a good solution?

    1. You can vote. You just can’t vote for a party nominee when you don’t belong to the party.

      Get in the game and pick a side. No one agrees 100% with their party, unless they are idiots.

      1. Interesting. I’m pretty certain our 1st Amendment Right to peaceable assembly also inherently protects my right NOT to be forced to assemble with private organizations. Close to 50% of veterans, like me, have absolutely no interest in joining a private political party.

        1. You do have that right. But you have no legitimate right to vote for the nominee of a group you choose not to assemble with.

          The right to assemble would be meaningless if non-members had as much influence as members.

    2. Wow. Nothing like demeaning a courageous war veteran who served his country honorably. Shame on you. Because you’re so smart … Please show me where exactly, in our Beloved Constitution, it says that private political parties get to decide who participates in taxpayer funded elections?

      1. The constitution does not require primaries at all. The state provides partisan primaries as an alternative to internal party leadership choosing their nominees, which would be within their rights and which is how it was done historically.

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