(Capital-Star photo by Ella Lathan)
By Harry Hou and Danika Grieser
Last week, as Pennsylvanians across our 67 counties went to the polls, more than million registered voters could not. Since 1937, the Pennsylvania Election Code has prohibited unaffiliated voters from participating in our primary elections, and we believe it is time to change.
We are two Swarthmore College students from Montgomery and Bucks Counties. We also serve on the leadership team of Students for Ballot PA, a constituent of the nonpartisan project Ballot PA, hosted by the Committee of Seventy. Our campaign seeks to end closed primaries across Pennsylvania by passing a bill through the state legislature that will limit the disenfranchisement felt by voters.
All registered voters – regardless of their party status – deserve to participate in our primaries, which determine approximately 90% of Pennsylvania elections. Legislation to reopen primaries would better our Commonwealth’s democratic process by expanding the electorate, including the 1.1 million voters registered as unaffiliated to either political party.
As students, we advocate for this issue with the knowledge that college-aged voters register as unaffiliated voters at disproportionate levels. Young people, like ourselves, view their college years as an opportunity for self-discovery; we continuously refine the lens we use to view the world.
But our generation has grown up with a political discourse that resembles a hurricane of voices. Practically any issue brings a thousand viewpoints in discord. It should not come as a surprise that many young voters do not affiliate themselves with either of our two major political parties.
As such, college-aged voters – many of our peers – have a higher tendency to register as independents. Jeffrey Jones from Gallup Polling recognizes 52% of Generation Z voters identify as political independents, explaining the past decade’s rising trend of independent identification.
In Pennsylvania, some urban areas and college towns see higher concentrations of independent voters. House districts with larger student populations – State College and Oakland, Pittsburgh for example – see up to 35% more independent voters than the state average.
This issue hits particularly close to home for Danika, the daughter of two U.S. Army JAG Corps veterans as servicemen tend to register as independents. They dedicated themselves to serving their country and they deserve to have an equal voice in how it is governed. Pew Research suggests 49% of veterans nationwide identify as independents. For young veterans, the proportion swings up to 60%.
Steelers Super Bowl Champion and Purple Heart recipient Rocky Bleier suggests one possible explanation: “When you fight for our country and our freedom, you’re not fighting for Republicans or Democrats. You’re not on the red team or blue team.”
Our broader campaign has received the support of civic groups, editorial boards, and elected officials across Pennsylvania. And we have seen substantive progress made toward improving our election code.
Last month, a bipartisan group of 15 Senators led by state Sens. Dan Laughlin, R-Erie, and Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton,introduced SB400.
During the same week, state Reps. Jared Solomon and Chris Rabb, both Philadelphia Democrats, introduced HB979, which was co-sponsored by 11 of their colleagues, while state Rep. Marla Brown, R-Lawrence, introduced HB976, which was co-sponsored by eight of her colleagues.
These bills — SB400, HB979, and HB976 — declare that those registered as unaffiliated “shall be permitted to vote in primary elections.”
We are excited to see the introduction of these bills, which continue to grow in support. Now is the time to pass them.
Pennsylvania is the birthplace of democracy, and we should strive to always be at the forefront of reforms that improve our democratic process.
There are currently only nine states across the country that still have closed primaries. We need to reclaim our status among the vanguard of freedom by ending this fundamentally undemocratic process and making sure that everyone’s voice can be heard.
Harry Hou and Danika Grieser attend Swarthmore College. As Pennsylvania residents, they also serve on the leadership team of Students for Ballot PA.
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