(Photo by Daniella Heminghaus for the New Jersey Monitor)
By David Thornburgh
Something unusual happened last week in Pennsylvania.
In a bit of a surprise, a coalition of Republicans and Democrats selected Rep. Mark Rozzi, from Berks County, as Speaker of the House.
With a closely-divided House, his was a compromise selection. In his post-election remarks, Speaker Rozzi declared his independence: “I pledge my loyalty to the people of the commonwealth, to the people who are tired of the hyperpartisanship in both parties, “I pledge to put people above politics and the institution before ideology.”
He went on to commit that he would hire bipartisan staff, make decisions absent ideology, and refuse to caucus with either party. He is the first Independent Speaker in the Commonwealth’s history.
Speaker Rozzi’s words and sentiments were taken to heart by Pennsylvania’s 1.1 million independent voters, who for 86 years have been denied the ability to vote in primary elections. Those welcome words from one of the Commonwealth’s most powerful political perches felt like the first step towards a momentous victory.
Rozzi’s election is a promising development for a politically divided Commonwealth. It suggests that Rep. Rozzi is committed to representing all of his constituents, regardless of their political affiliations. We hope Speaker Rozzi and all members of the General Assembly live up to these ideals throughout this new legislative session.
However, it is worth noting that Pennsylvania is one of only nine states that excludes independent and unaffiliated voters from voting in primary elections.
This exclusion limits voters from having a say in the political process and silences their voices in shaping the Commonwealth’s future.
Some 90 percent of all House and Senate elections in 2022 were essentially decided in the primary, meaning only one party fielded a candidate or more than 10 points decided the general election. If you can’t vote in the primary, your voice and your vote truly don’t count.
What better way to secure Rozzi’s commitment to “put people over politics” than for Pennsylvania to finally join the 41 other states which allow independent voters to participate fully in all elections?
Primary elections are an essential part of the democratic process. They allow voters the first shot at selecting the candidates who will represent them in the general election.
These first-round elections shape the political landscape of the Commonwealth, but Pennsylvania effectively disenfranchises a significant portion of its electorate by restricting participation in primary elections to registered members of a particular party.
This disenfranchisement is particularly problematic in a Commonwealth like Pennsylvania. Many Independent and unaffiliated voters may have strong opinions on the Commonwealth’s issues while considering themselves Independent.
By denying these voters a say in the primary process, the Commonwealth is effectively silencing their voices and ignoring their concerns. Allowing Independent and unaffiliated voters to participate in primary elections would foster a more inclusive and representative political system and better ensure that its elected officials are representative of the people they serve.
Finally, there is the question of fairness. It is simply unfair to exclude Independent and unaffiliated voters from primary elections. These voters pay taxes, participate in their communities, and have the same right to influence the political process as registered members of a particular party. In fact, Independent voters help bear the cost of primary elections, which total approximately $25 million each year. This is simply unfair.
With an independent speaker in the Pennsylvania House, and a legislature searching for bipartisan solutions, it is time to finally repeal closed primaries and let more than 1.1 million Independent voters participate in primary elections.
Rozzi’s election as speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives is a promising development for the Commonwealth.
However, to fully realize the benefits of his independent leadership, it is essential that Pennsylvania repeal closed primaries and let Independent and unaffiliated voters vote. Our new speaker has said he will give Independents a voice in Harrisburg. Let’s give them the same respect and power at the polls.
David Thornburgh chairs the Committee of Seventy’s Ballot PA initiative. He is the son of former Pennsylvania Gov. and U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh.
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