In Harrisburg, generally known as the Place Reform Goes to Die, there is now robust debate about two critical political reforms: 1) proposals to end gerrymandering by creating a more independent process by which to draw political maps, and 2) proposals to enact open primaries and allow the state’s 750,000 independent voters to participate in first-round elections.
Are these proposals a quick fix to all that ails our politics? Probably not. Are they worth doing? Absolutely. The status quo (closed primaries and gerrymandered districts) now go hand-in-glove to insulate politicians, reduce competition, and reinforce partisanship.
Our political system is so broken that lawmakers struggle year after year to perform the most basic task of passing a balanced budget on time. And citizens know it. Only 14 percent of Pennsylvanians approve of the job being done by the state legislature.
>>READ MORE: Pa., open those primaries
But despite their low ratings, Pennsylvania lawmakers rarely get voted out of office because competition is kept to a minimum by closed partisan primaries and gerrymandered districts. In 2016, 49 percent of general election contests saw only one candidate on the ballot. Sometimes it seems like more legislators leave office in handcuffs or a hearse than because they lose an election.
There is clearly momentum on the fair-districting front. In January, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that our gerrymandered congressional map violates the state constitution and ordered the map redrawn. The court’s decision was necessary, but not sufficient to define a more fair, independent mapping process. Fortunately, over the last year and a half the Fair Districts PA coalition has mobilized 25,000 citizens to speak out in support of true redistricting reform. These energetic and courageous efforts hang in the balance, as a constitutional amendment necessary for change will need to pass the legislature this month.
The court ruling on gerrymandering may result in more even balanced and competitive districts, but it will not solve the problem of excluding voters during the primaries. Unless and until we create a fairer redistricting process and open up closed primaries to independents, we’ll continue to see elected representatives settled and secure in their safe seats. Lacking a real threat of losing at the ballot box, our lawmakers will continue to answer mainly to special interests, toe the party line, and avoid the “productive center” of the political process. Their aversion to compromise, informed debate and common sense will continue to breed anger and distrust among voters, and reinforce their belief that “the system” is broken — or if not broken, that’s it’s fixed. As in rigged.
Grassroots independents and reform activists have been pushing to enact open primaries since 2009, when then-Rep. (now Auditor General) Eugene DePasquale first introduced legislation to allow independents to participate. Sen. Rob Teplitz, a Dauphin County Democrat, and Rep. Bryan Cutler, a Lancaster County Republican, introduced similar legislation in 2014. Over the last 10 years, numerous petitions have circulated and scores of articles have been written about the need to open primaries. More than one independent voting taxpayer has asked on primary day why she’s forced to pay for partisan primaries even when she’s prevented from participating.
But now, at last, legislative leaders are listening. Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati and House Majority Leader Dave Reed have both indicated that they are introducing open primaries legislation this session. This is good news for all Pennsylvanians.
Will allowing independents to vote in partisan primaries revitalize Pennsylvania’s politics overnight? Not by a long shot. But coupled with real redistricting reform, open primaries will nudge Pennsylvania back to the center, a center marked by compromise and consensus and results. And opening the primaries will end the second-class status of independent voters, many of whom are under the age of 30, and send a message to the country that when it comes to democracy, Pennsylvanians want to grow and innovate.
Pennsylvania has a chance to enact meaningful redistricting reform and fully enfranchise 750,000 citizens and energize the next generation of our state’s voters, who want to participate but not to join a political party. There’s a window of opportunity before us. Let’s go.
David Thornburgh is the president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy. John Opdycke is the president of Open Primaries