By Mark O’Keefe
Only 18 percent of Pennsylvania’s registered voters bothered to cast ballots in last spring’s primary election.
That’s a disgrace no matter how you look at it.
Some say that the way to increase voter turnout is to end Pennsylvania’s closed primary system, which mandates that only Democrat or Republican voters can cast ballots in their respective primaries.
They point out that more and more people are registering as independents. The numbers bear that out with 785,579 of Pennsylvania’s 8.4 million registered voters not affiliated with any party, a 75 percent increase over the past eight years, according to Associated Press.
State Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, D-Jefferson, has sponsored a bill that would allow independent voters to participate in either the Democratic or Republican primaries.
Scaranti told the Associated Press that this bill could help increase participation in the primary process and start getting some moderation in the political process. He believes extremism is currently taking place in primaries with independents being shut out.
The bill received a hearing in the Senate State Government committee recently along with several other election reform measures.
However, open primaries might be the solution to apathy at the polls, according to the Associated Press.
It reported that a paper, published in 2011 by researchers from the Public Policy Institute of California, Princeton University and the universities of Denver and Chicago, found that, “Most of the effects we have found tend to be the opposite of those that are typically expected: the more open the primary system, the more liberal the Democrat and the more conservative the Republican.”
Seth Masket, director of the Center of the Center on American Politics, told the Associated Press that, “Most people who call themselves independent or unaffiliated actually vote pretty consistently with one of the major parties. They just prefer not to call themselves a member of that party or be identified that way.”
The real way to increase voter turnout is to simply make it easier for people to vote. Pennsylvania is far behind other states in this area, especially Oregon, where voters are registered automatically and the state mails out ballots to every voter.
There are several basic ways Pennsylvania could make voting easier: Among them are:
- Allowing voters to register on Election Day. Seventeen states already permit this practice. In Pennsylvania, the deadline for voter registration is 30 days before an election, the most allowed under federal law. However, many elections don’t heat up until the final weeks when more voters are likely to pay attention to the issues. But it’s too late for voters to register at that point.
- Allowing early voting. In 39 states any qualified voter may cast a ballot in person during a designated period prior to Election Day. No excuse or justification is required.
- Allowing no-excuse absentee voting. In 19 states, an excuse is required, while 28 states and the District of Columbia permit any qualified voter to vote absentee without offering an excuse. In Pennsylvania, voters have to give an excuse before they can receive an absentee ballot, including the name of a doctor if a person has a physical ailment. That’s ridiculous. It’s no one’s business if you want to vote by mail. If that even discourages one person from voting that’s one too many.
There were other ideas tossed around at the State Government Committee hearing that merit further discussion.
However, before anyone gets too excited about any real changes, we have to remember this is the Pennsylvania Legislature — where nothing ever gets done quickly.
The State Government Committee took no action on Scarnatti’s bill or the other reforms, and it’s not clear when or if an actual vote will ever be taken.
Furthermore, if any of the changes require amending the state constitution, it would have to be passed in two consecutive sessions of the Legislature and then put to a referendum before all the residents of Pennsylvania.
The bottom line is that many of these changes have been talked about for years without anything ever being done.
Who knows? Maybe this will be the year when something is finally done, but let’s hope it doesn’t end with open primaries.
Mark O’Keefe, a former Editorial Page Editor at The Herald-Standard of Uniontown, Pa., is a Capital-Star Opinion contributor. His work appears monthly. He writes from Mechanicsburg, Pa.