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Politically Uncorrected: Pennsylvania’s Primary Problem

Donald Trump is right.

Elections in the United States are fixed. But he is wrong about how they are fixed, who is doing the fixing, and what it is doing to our democracy.

Trump seems to believe that millions of illegal voters are stuffing our national ballot boxes with illicit votes. But that particular myth has now been debunked by a phalanx of scholars, election administrators, and other public officials, both Democrats and Republicans. Few major issues today enjoy near unanimous bi-partisan consensus. This one does.

Trump’s fantasy about widespread illegal voting is a crock. He is right, however, that elections are fixed – but he is right for the wrong reason.

Our elections are fixed not by mythical illegal voters. Indeed, we need more voters, more turnout and more participation in our politics. Instead it’s our own political institutions, including our political party primary systems, that increasingly create and reinforce the toxic malaise pervading contemporary politics.

Our electoral system is a “two party system” – meaning that two major political parties, i.e. the Republican Party and the Democratic Party win most of the elections, make most of the policy and monopolize most of the power. In reality “most” is usually “all” as “third parties” and “Independents” rarely win elections or exercise power in our system. Competition, to the extent it exists, does so between the two major parties.

From the beginning of the two-party system in the 1790’s this meant the major parties needed a system to nominate candidates to run in state, congressional and presidential general elections. Successive systems known, respectively, as “caucuses,” “conventions,” and finally “direct primaries” were used to nominate candidates. The current system used for most American elections is the direct primary that first gained popularity in the early 20th century.

Far from “democratic” it still was more democratic than either the caucus or convention because it allowed rank and file voters to select (nominate) party candidates.

Over time, individual states adopting the primary system opted for either “open” or “closed” primaries. The open primary, with some variants, allows any registered voter to vote in the party primary of their choice regardless of whether they are registered with another party or no party at all. The advantage of open primaries is they increase participation, draw a wider swath of voters and are more representative of the electorate as a whole.

Closed primaries, on the other hand, exist in just eleven states. Pennsylvania is one of them. The argument for them is that they allow the major parties to control those that can vote in that party’s primary.

The reality of closed primaries is much more ominous. In practice they tend to attract mostly committed, deeply involved voters, who in turn favor candidates toward the ideological extremes – far right for Republicans and far left for Democrats. This often leaves the more moderate in the electorate without a candidate to strongly support.

According to the Pew Research Center, a majority of voters are moderates while a minority are “the most deeply partisan and ideological…” However, it is precisely this deeply partisan minority that tends to vote in Pennsylvania primaries – while the voiceless 80% tend to be the moderates who don’t or can’t vote. As Pennsylvania’s Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati recently remarked: “The extremes of the parties have taken over the primary process.” Voters in the general election today remind one of the famous Henry Ford statement about Ford automobile buyers. They can paint their car “any color so long as it is black.”  Voters in the fall general today can vote for any candidate they want as long as he or she isn’t very moderate.

Closed primaries effectively disenfranchise a majority of voters. Indeed, some 1.2 million registered Pennsylvanians are completely shut out of the process. Even if voters excluded in the spring do vote in November, their choice is limited to candidates chosen by someone else. This year some 80% of eligible voters were voiceless while the other 20% picked the nominees who will be on the November ballot.

Happily more and more states have adopted the open primary system to minimize voter disenfranchisement. Even the Pennsylvania legislature is considering a system that would allow “Independents” and unaffiliated to vote in primaries.

Pennsylvania, however, is notoriously slow to change and much work needs to be done to bring about even modest reform. The stakes are high. Our country is being torn apart by ideologues of both parties while more moderate, less extreme and less polarized voters are relegated to the sidelines.

Opening up the primary system offers no panacea. It is no magic wand, as other changes such as anti-gerrymandering reapportionment reform, and increased voting participation must also come. But adopting an open primary would be a big step on a long road – a road that will only grow longer the longer we delay.

16 Responses

  1. PA should ALLOW early Voting up to 2 or 3 weeks before the actual Election Primary and General . PA should make it so that anyone who wants to can get an absentee ballot and Vote without having to declare what your Illness is or where you are going to be out of the area . Its Ludacris that you should have to give any reason whatsoever as to why you want an absentee Ballot . Absentee Ballots should be allowed to be accepted right up until 8 pm on Election Day . Another thing that should be done is eliminate Party Primaries and have everyone run on the same line in the Primary and the 2 highest Vote getters proceed to The General Election and The Highest Vote Getter in The General Wins The Office or Seat or Position . This would get an extremely higher Voter Turnout on Election Days .Election Day should be a Full 24 Hours preceding 8 pm on Election Night

  2. Have these authors actually lived in an open primary state? People often vote the other party, either to support a friend’s candidacy or to stick the other side with the worst possible candidate.

    1. So true! Ask the Missouri Republicans how happy they were that Democrats crossed over and voted for Todd Akin. (Hint: Missouri’s senator is Claire McCaskill.)

  3. Since when has PA become a hotbed of extreme nominees? Sure, the occasional Daylin Leach or Daryl Metcalfe slips in, on the left or right, respectively. But generally PA is the land of the say little and do even less of substance nominee. Given the weight the authors have placed on this extremist takeover, they should have at least cited some examples.

    And even if opened or closed leads to a certain kind of nominee, so what? The goal should be wider access, not each of us projecting which system gives us the outcome we want, then backing into an argument supporting that. Oppose or support one system or the other on the issue of enfranchisement, not on which gets your nominee the edge.

    Nevertheless, voter participation would skyrocket if we were all allowed to participate in what is most often (except at the statewide level) the decisive election. And so would our overall feeling of enfranchisement. When I was registered indie, I voted in most Generals. Only. Now that I am a Dem, I vote in most Primaries and Generals. It is not at all a logical conclusion that I suddenly became twice as motivated now, or that I was twice as lazy before. Far more believable is that I wanted to participate but could not, so was forced to join a party to do so.

    Bravo Senator Scarnati, and it has been quite a while since I’ve said that.

    1. Well said. I agreed with this article until I saw the “extremes of the parties” argument. It makes no sense to me. If anything, closed primaries ensure that centrist, establishment candidates rise to the top. The extremes of both parties more than likely aren’t party insiders and maybe aren’t registered with a party.

  4. If you want to vote in the Primary Election, you must have the guts to declare as a voter for one of the major parties. As it should be.

    1. Agreed. Besides, those registered “independents” made their choice to disenfranchise themselves.

  5. David Diano, the problem is not open primaries or closed primaries. The problem is taxpayer funded primaries. Why should my taxes pay to subsidize political party nominating processes? Let’s eliminate primaries. Parties can use caucuses, conventions, rabbits out of hats. Any party that got 3 percent in the most recent relevant portion of our four-year cycle gets to put its nominees on the ballot. We have one election a year, in November, with a runoff proviso when the margin of victory is less than 3 percent (or 5, or any reasonable number). Parties proliferate. Voters participate. Government saves election-costs money. “But, oh dear! Under that system, we could elect a Donald Trump!” Oops. We already did, and government continues to function in its usual fumbling fashion. Eliminating primaries energizes the electorate, giving us better-staffed government.

    1. Why should my taxes pay for your roads? We have lots of programs funded by taxpayers who don’t reap the benefits. If you want to reap the benefits, register to one of the two major parties and enfranchise yourself.

  6. I agree with David Diano on this one.

    As a partisan Democrat I always wonder when Republican legislatures won’t back bills for really fair voting districts and try to introduce measures to allow votes to cross over in close elections where they must protect local or state seats.

    Maybe, they are afraid of voters changing over and staying there especially when they put up candidates like Wagner and have the present dizzy leadership in the State House and Senate. These guys proposing election rule changes are disingenuous.

    1. @BradKirch: Spoken like a true Socialist Democrat! Keep the Pennsylvania Primaries just the way they are! I don’t want you to have the ability to vote for a Republican in a Primary and you certainly don’t want me voting for a Democrat! As for “fair” voting districts? Think back to 2000 when Democrats REALLY screwed up what was then the 8th District! Sorry amigo, no sale!

  7. There is no evidence that in Pennsylvania we nominate extreme candidates in primaries. None.

  8. Please learn math or English before writing your drivel posing as analysis.

    “Closed primaries effectively disenfranchise a majority of voters. Indeed, some 1.2 million registered Pennsylvanians are completely shut out of the process.”

    The 3rd party voters represent only 13% of the registered voters in PA. They are not close to a majority of the voters. Nor, are they disenfranchised, because they can change their party registration up to a month before a primary election.

    80% of the eligible voters weren’t “voiceless”. They CHOSE not to show up and vote. They chose to be silent. Turnout in Presidential elections is over 80% among the Dem and GOP voters. 20% turnout for the recent primary is there sheer f*cking laziness and has NOTHING to do with lack of open primaries.

    Also, a lot of the 3rd party voters register not-Dem/GOP because they don’t want to get all the political junk mail or be bothered.

    Also, you are wrong about the closed primaries picking extreme left or right candidates. No one would confuse Bob Casey with a left wing radical. If your premise was true, Casey would have kicked out years ago, and Specter would never have lasted as long as he did, and Fetterman would have won the Senate primary in 2016, and Bernie would have won PA.

    On the Dem side, the primary election calculation by voters is: what candidate has the best chance at winning?

    That answer is often a moderate Dem that can win outside of Philly, with the moderate Dems, Independents and moderate Republicans.

    1. Well said. Those who choose to be “independent” choose to opt out of choosing candidates in the primary. If they are going to complain about who is chosen, they can register as a member of a party and be involved in the process.

      1. Please note that they can register as a member of a party and switch their registration back to independent as soon as the primary is over.

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