There is an old saying that when you are digging yourself into a hole the first step to getting out of it is to stop digging.
Pennsylvania’s election system is a disaster. Changes brought about by the ill-fated Act 77 that authorized no excuse mail-in balloting, coupled with the forcing of counties to replace voting systems that had been functioning smoothly, have led to problems that have destroyed the integrity of our electoral process for a significant portion of the electorate.
Those problems have persisted into the current election cycle. The Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate is headed for a recount and once again the courts are being called upon to adjudicate the validity of some ballots.
Amid this swirl of confusion and chaos the legislature is considering yet another fundamental change in the electoral process: allowing those voters registered as independent to vote in party primaries. As with Act 77, such a change would bring about unintended consequences.
Before we get to that let us first consider terminology. The current system is often referred to as a “closed” primary. That is a misnomer. What we have is a “party” primary specifically designed to have the members of that party select the nominees who will appear on their party’s line in the November General Election. The party system is not closed. In fact political parties work hard at recruiting new voters.
The current party primary system does not disenfranchise independent voters. Independent voters are such by choice, not because any law prevented them from registering with a political party. An independent voter who becomes interested in a party primary in any given year can simply re-register into that party for the primary and then switch back to independent afterward.
Independent voters are typically not totally independent; most tend to tilt either Democrat or Republican. Those who don’t tilt, in the words of one veteran political consultant, are simply disinterested. The push to allow independents to vote in party primaries is not, generally speaking, coming from them.
So after more than a century of party primaries why is there now a push to allow independents to vote in the party primary of their choice? The excuse is party primaries are now dominated by the extremes of both parties. However, what one person sees as extreme another sees as the party base.
The Republican Party has become more conservative and the Democratic Party more socialist. Over the decades the center of gravity in each party tends to ebb and flow, but such is the nature of a changing electorate and its response to the challenges of the day. Non-party members should not be allowed to alter that course.
In fact the current push for so-called “open” primaries began in the state senate because a former member of Republican leadership saw a favored incumbent lose in a primary to a conservative challenger. The plan is to diminish the influence of the party’s conservative base by introducing independents into the mix.
Open primaries – the Left loves to give bad ideas mom and apple pie sounding names – is also an invitation for chicanery. It allows parties to meddle in each other’s primary by pushing independents to vote for the perceived weakest General Election candidate.
The recent primary proved this tendency as Attorney General Josh Shapiro, running unopposed for his party’s gubernatorial nomination, ran ads cleverly designed to push GOP voters to vote for the candidate perceived by the Democrats to be their weakest General Election opponent. The underlying assumption was faulty, and the effort wasn’t decisive in determining the Republican nominee, but the tactic presages the ease with which allowing independents to vote in party primaries can be hijacked for partisan purposes.
Much overheated rhetoric has surrounded the open primary debate such as the claim that the current system is “taxation without representation.” Not true. Independent voters, such as voters who register in minor parties ranging from Libertarian to Green have made a conscious choice.
Another unintended consequence of allowing registered independents to vote in a party primary is that a rogue state Supreme Court could legislate from the bench, which it has done repeatedly with Act 77, to potentially completely change the system to allow all voters to declare their party at the polls thus creating additional chaos.
There is a lot of buyer’s remorse surrounding Act 77 with many lawmakers blaming the high court and the Wolf Administration for perverting legislative intent. Having been once burned you would think they might be wary of trying to fix something that is not broken.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly American Radio Journal and Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is [email protected])
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