For a better Pennsylvania: Part 4 - voting reforms

Voting in Pennsylvania is harder than in most other states.

(This is the fourth of five weekly columns dealing with areas of government and politics that, if reformed, would make Pennsylvania better.)

Here’s the dilemma. Reform begins at the ballot box. But what if access to the ballot itself needs reform?

Such is the case in Pennsylvania.

If, for example, you’re an independent or third-party voter – and there are more than 1.1 million of you – you can’t vote for candidates in primary elections.

Oh, you can vote on yes/no ballot questions. And in rare, scattered special elections. But not when it comes to picking the people who run your government.

This is especially true in voting for the legislature.

Last year, half the state House and Senate races offered just one candidate in the general election.

This is largely due to things I’ve written about earlier in this series, including unlimited campaign money and incumbent protections such as gerrymandering.

But what it means, since the only competitive legislative races tend to be in primaries, is that 14 percent of Pennsylvania’s registered voters have no voice.

We’re a “closed primary state” – one of only nine, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

This is wrong on its face. It helps protect the political status quo. It disenfranchises citizens, even while using their tax dollars to pay for elections in which those citizens can’t participate. And it’ll get worse as more (especially younger) voters step away from the two major parties.

In Philadelphia, for example, independents and third-party voters now total 117,800 – outnumbering registered Republicans.

“It’s simply unfair to lock out voters from meaningful elections,” says David Thornburgh, head of elections watchdog Committee of Seventy, “and, at a time we’re concerned about low turnout, especially in primaries, including independents is a guaranteed way to increase turnout.”

Plus, says Thornburgh, open primaries could reduce extreme partisanship because candidates would have to “appeal to a broader cross section of voters and, if elected, reflect that by working toward the [ideological] middle.”

Closed primaries are part of our archaic, democracy-diminishing voting system, one reason our state ranks among the nation’s worst in running elections.

The Electoral Integrity Project, a joint international venture of Harvard University and the University of Sydney, Australia, studied states using metrics such as voting laws, electoral procedures, campaign financing, and more. After the 2016 elections, it ranked Pennsylvania 45th.

We tamp down voting in multiple ways.

Unlike 37 other states, we offer no early voting. Unlike 27 other states, we offer no no-excuse absentee voting. We don’t have same-day registration voting; 15 states do.

(Six of those had the nation’s highest turnout in 2016. Our turnout is generally bad: 20th in 2016, 34th in 2012.)

And three states — Oregon, Washington, and Colorado — run elections by mail.

Katherine Culliton-González is senior counsel at Demos (the people), a New York-based nonpartisan, nonprofit voter-rights group active in litigating voting issues, including Pennsylvania’s voter ID law, ruled unconstitutional in 2014.

“Pennsylvania has a history.  And it continues to create barriers to the ballot,” she says, “from lack of language access to a lack of poll worker training, no early voting. It not only complicates voting but it sets up real barriers to voters.”

She notes that like 35 other states, Pennsylvania does have online voter registration. I’d note it was put in place in 2015 by Gov. Wolf, 13 years after state law allowed it.

It works, by the way. Its first year it drew nearly 900,000 registrants.

But we could do better.

U.S. Census data show that our voting-age population is 10 million-plus. State data show 8.4 million registered voters. So there’s lots of room – 1.6 million people worth of room – for growth.

We’re not the worst state for voting. Mississippi, Arizona, and Tennessee vie for that.

But, given our heritage, we should be the best. Our lawmakers (who can be found at legis.state.pa.us) should honor our heritage. Not maintain affronts to it.

Reform can’t happen without improving basics. And nothing’s more basic than voting.