OP-ED: Reclaiming the center in Pennsylvania politics

Jason Altmire
Former Pennsylvania Congressman
Susan Carty, president of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, speaks at a news conference at the state Capitol in Harrisburg to announce a lawsuit challenging the state's U.S. congressional district boundaries. Behind Carty are the 18 individuals who joined the League of Women Voters in suing the state, including John Capowski, of Camp Hill. Capowski, center, is representing the 4th Congressional District in the lawsuit. Thursday, June 15, 2017. Jason Addy photo.

It is an understatement to say that Pennsylvania has lagged behind other states in good government reforms. But that may be about to change, as legislators in Harrisburg are working with citizen reform groups across the state to craft meaningful legislation that has the potential to move Pennsylvania to the front of the line in open and fair elections.

Such reforms have the potential to expand opportunities for voters, make races more competitive, and reduce the gridlock and polarization that has paralyzed the political system in Washington and state capitals around the country.

Leaders in both the state House and Senate are considering legislation to open up Pennsylvania’s primary elections to the nearly 800,000 voters who are registered Independents. This is a critical and long overdue reform, as few issues play a greater role in driving candidates and elected officials toward the extremes.

Because Pennsylvania has excluded independent voters from participating in primary elections, candidates must craft their message to appeal to those who are most likely to vote, currently the most highly partisan voters the commonwealth has to offer. When those candidates are elected to office, they legislate in a way that will score points with those partisans.

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Earning a reputation for bipartisan collaboration is an electoral liability in a closed primary system. This is not a formula for reducing polarization and bringing back compromise and moderation to our politics.

Enter open primaries.

Jason Altmire

Independent voters would provide a much needed moderating influence to primary elections. Candidates running for office in open primaries would have to tailor their messages and actions to win the support of more centrist-minded independents, rather than simply the narrow partisan extremes of their own political party, as is the case today. Campaigning in a way that only appeals to voters in your own party would be a recipe for defeat in an open primary, as such tactics would surely turn off the newly empowered independent voters.

Opponents of open primaries argue that partisan primaries are like private clubs, where Republicans and Democrats should be entitled to select their own nominees without interference from voters who choose to register as Independents. There are several problems with this argument. For example, the Republican and Democratic parties don’t pay for their own elections – taxpayers do. Why then should Pennsylvania grant Republicans and Democrats exclusive access to the primary ballot? All taxpayers pay to conduct primary elections, so it is only fair that all voters have the opportunity to participate.

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Equally important, independent voters are the fastest growing segment of the American electorate, representing 28% of voters in states with party registration. Overall, 43% of Americans, including 50% of Millennials, identify as politically independent. Democracy works best when more people vote, so why would Pennsylvania perpetuate a system that locks out the fastest growing block of the electorate?

In addition, when considering all levels of government, more than half of America’s elected officials are elected without opposition in the general election. This means the result of the primary election effectively determines who will win the seat, giving independents no say in who will represent them. To make matters worse, many of the seats where there is a contested race occur in areas where a substantial registration advantage all but guarantees victory to one of the major parties, thereby making the primary the more important election.

One of these two scenarios occurs in the vast majority of elections in America and in Pennsylvania. This presents a strong argument in favor of open primaries, as well as the other major reform being considered in Pennsylvania — fixing gerrymandering.

In an obscene rejection of the founding principles of our republic, Pennsylvania has joined many other states in allowing politicians to choose their voters, rather than voters choosing their politicians. This is done through the nefarious process of gerrymandering, where members of the General Assembly draw the lines of the districts for congressional and state legislative seats. The abuses of this system are well documented and Pennsylvania has been a poster child for this bad behavior for decades. But, as with open primaries, help may soon be on the way.

Groups such as Pennsylvanians Against Gerrymandering, Fair Districts PA, Unite America, and the powerful Philadelphia business group Committee of Seventy, have all made the issue a priority. These and other groups call for nonpartisan independent commissions to draw the legislative boundaries, a position supported by 67% of Pennsylvania voters according to a recent Franklin and Marshall statewide opinion poll. Similar citizen-led coalitions are working in favor of open primaries, and both efforts have made a difference.

The legislative leaders who are driving this debate in Harrisburg are to be commended. The easy way out would be keep doing what they had been doing, which has heavily benefited the political incumbents who draw their own district lines and face little opposition in closed primaries.

Still, the forces of self-interest remain evident. Not every legislator is willing to make their own election more competitive, and the two major parties are less than thrilled with the idea of losing control of the process. Nevertheless, progress has been made and Pennsylvania may be on the cusp of truly meaningful reforms. Those interested in reducing the near-historic levels of polarization we see all around us should work to push these measure across the finish line.

— Jason Altmire represented Pennsylvania in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2007 to 2013. He is currently a special advisor to Unite America and is the author of “Dead Center: How Political Polarization Divided America and What We Can Do About It.”