Penn­syl­va­nia elec­tions have a pri­mary prob­lem

The Community Connection - - OPINION - G. Terry Madonna and Michael Young G. Terry Madonna is pro­fes­sor of pub­lic af­fairs at Franklin & Mar­shall Col­lege, and Michael Young is a for­mer pro­fes­sor of pol­i­tics and pub­lic af­fairs at Penn State Univer­sity and man­ag­ing part­ner of Michael Young Strat

Don­ald Trump is right. Elec­tions in the United States are fixed. But he is wrong about how they are fixed, who is do­ing the fix­ing, and what it is do­ing to our democ­racy.

Trump seems to be­lieve that mil­lions of il­le­gal vot­ers are stuff­ing our na­tional bal­lot boxes with illicit votes. But that par­tic­u­lar myth has now been de­bunked by a pha­lanx of schol­ars, elec­tion ad­min­is­tra­tors, and other pub­lic of­fi­cials, both Democrats and Repub­li­cans. Few ma­jor is­sues to­day en­joy near unan­i­mous bi-par­ti­san con­sen­sus. This one does.

Trump’s fan­tasy about wide­spread il­le­gal vot­ing is a crock. He is right, how­ever, that elec­tions are fixed — but he is right for the wrong rea­son.

Our elec­tions are fixed not by myth­i­cal il­le­gal vot­ers. In­deed, we need more vot­ers, more turnout and more par­tic­i­pa­tion in our pol­i­tics. In­stead it’s our own po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions, in­clud­ing our po­lit­i­cal party pri­mary sys­tems, that in­creas­ingly cre­ate and re­in­force the toxic malaise per­vad­ing con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics.

Our elec­toral sys­tem is a “two party sys­tem” — mean­ing that two ma­jor po­lit­i­cal par­ties, i.e. the Repub­li­can Party and the Demo­cratic Party win most of the elec­tions, make most of the pol­icy and mo­nop­o­lize most of the power. In re­al­ity “most” is usu­ally “all” as “third par­ties” and “In­de­pen­dents” rarely win elec­tions or ex­er­cise power in our sys­tem.

Over time, in­di­vid­ual states adopt­ing the pri­mary sys­tem opted for ei­ther “open” or “closed” pri­maries. The open pri­mary, with some vari­ants, al­lows any reg­is­tered voter to vote in the party pri­mary of their choice re­gard­less of whether they are reg­is­tered with an­other party or no party at all.

The ad­van­tage of open pri­maries is they in­crease par­tic­i­pa­tion, draw a wider swath of vot­ers and are more rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the elec­torate as a whole.

Closed pri­maries, on the other hand, ex­ist in just eleven states. Penn­syl­va­nia is one of them. The ar­gu­ment is that they al­low the ma­jor par­ties to con­trol those that can vote in the pri­mary.

Ac­cord­ing to the Pew Re­search Cen­ter, a ma­jor­ity of vot­ers are mod­er­ates while a mi­nor­ity are “the most deeply par­ti­san and ide­o­log­i­cal…” How­ever, it is pre­cisely this deeply par­ti­san mi­nor­ity that tends to vote in Penn­syl­va­nia pri­maries — while the voice­less 80 per­cent tend to be the mod­er­ates who don’t or can’t vote.

Closed pri­maries ef­fec­tively dis­en­fran­chise a ma­jor­ity of vot­ers. In­deed, some 1.2 mil­lion reg­is­tered Penn­syl­va­ni­ans are com­pletely shut out of the process.

Even if vot­ers ex­cluded in the spring do vote in Novem­ber, their choice is lim­ited to can­di­dates cho­sen by some­one else. This year some 80 per­cent of el­i­gi­ble vot­ers were voice­less while the other 20% picked the nom­i­nees for the Novem­ber bal­lot.

Hap­pily more and more states have adopted the open pri­mary sys­tem to min­i­mize voter dis­en­fran­chise­ment. Even the Penn­syl­va­nia leg­is­la­ture is con­sid­er­ing a sys­tem that would al­low “In­de­pen­dents” and un­af­fil­i­ated to vote in pri­maries.

Penn­syl­va­nia, how­ever, is no­to­ri­ously slow to change and much work needs to be done to bring about even mod­est re­form. The stakes are high. Our coun­try is be­ing torn apart by ide­o­logues of both par­ties while more mod­er­ate and less po­lar­ized vot­ers are rel­e­gated to the side­lines.

Open­ing up the pri­mary sys­tem of­fers no panacea. It is no magic wand, as other changes such as anti-ger­ry­man­der­ing reap­por­tion­ment re­form, and in­creased vot­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion must also come.

But adopt­ing an open pri­mary would be a big step on a long road – a road that will only grow longer the longer we de­lay.

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