New Castle News

May 23, 2013

Our Opinion: Pennsylvania’s primary system is controlled by parties

By Staff
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — Should Pennsylvania’s primaries be open to independent voters?

That’s an interesting question and one we have explored in the past on this page.

But yesterday’s New Castle News article by CNHI Harrisburg correspondent John Finnerty helps to highlight the issue. The article notes that approximately 1 million registered voters in the state cannot participate in the primaries because they don’t belong to either the Republican or Democratic parties.

What’s more, there are undoubtedly plenty of people who sign up with a particular party for no other reason than to be able to vote in primaries.

It’s no secret that the Republican and Democratic organizations have a stranglehold on the electoral process in Pennsylvania. That’s the case in many states that have closed primaries. They allow only party members to participate in selecting primary candidates.

That’s true even when candidates are allowed to cross-file on both ballots. For example, school board candidates in Tuesday’s primary could run as both Democrats and Republicans. It was the same for district judge candidates.

But nonpartisan voters were on the outside of the electoral process looking in. The only Lawrence County exception to that rule was in Perry Township, where independents were allowed to vote in a liquor referendum in that community — but nothing else.

A credible argument can be made that when it comes to purely partisan races, only party members ought to participate in primaries. But if that’s the case, and these primaries are for the benefit of political parties, why are taxpayers footing the bill for elections?

After all, any number of private organizations hold elections, and taxpayers do not subsidize them. Yet only Republicans and Democrats enjoy a full ride from taxpayers to conduct their partisan contests.

We’re reasonably sure that the two parties won’t voluntarily open their primaries to non-partisan participants. And they certainly won’t agree to pick up the tab for these elections.

But we see absolutely no rational justification for excluding independent and third-party voters from voting for candidates who are allowed to cross-file. If the candidates aren’t being forced to adhere to party loyalty, why is that imposition being placed on voters?

The answer to that question, we suspect, goes back to Pennsylvania’s traditionally paternalistic political system. To put it bluntly, the people are not in charge. Without the power to create referendums, amend the constitution or otherwise force changes in the law, citizens must depend on politicians to initiate any reforms. And frequently, those politicians have no interest in making changes.

So voters interested in fairness need to communicate that to elected officials — and do so at the ballot box if necessary.