Lawmakers are hearing calls to open Pennsylvania’s primary elections to all voters

Many Pennsylvania veterans see government as of the people, for the people, by the people, not politics, so they remain politically independent — and don’t participate in the state’s closed primary.

That was the common message conveyed by two veterans — including Marilyn Kelly-Cavota of Bethlehem — during testimony last week before the House State Committee.

The hearing at Villanova University focused on a bill that would open state primaries to all voters, not just Republicans and Democrats.

Marilyn Kelly-Cavota of Bethlehem testified before the House State Committee during a hearing last week at Villanova University. Kelly-Cavota, an Army veteran and executive director of Veterans Affairs and Military Services at Moravian University, told lawmakers that the state’s closed primary election system makes veterans less likely to vote. (Ford Turner – Morning Call)

Kelly-Cavota invoked Abraham Lincoln’s timeless lines about the people in the Gettysburg Address to urge lawmakers to pass the bill.

“Honor that word by allowing independent veteran voters the right to vote in all elections,” she said.

Pennsylvania is one of nine states that limit primary participation by Democrats and Republicans.

The bill was authored by Rep. Chris Quinn of Delaware County, Republican. The Democrat on the committee, Rep. Jared Solomon of Philadelphia, agreed it was time for a change.

Democrats and Republicans, Solomon said, think that because they are the major parties, they dominate all ideas and all decisions.

Solomon said the truth is that the approval ratings for both parties are not good enough, and more votes need to be included in the process.

“We know the status quo isn’t working,” Solomon said.

The state has about 8.8 million registered voters, including about 4 million Democrats, 3.5 million Republicans, more than 920,000 unaffiliated voters and more than 370,000 other voters. The latter two categories have been the focus of arguments that Pennsylvania’s primary process should be changed.

Kelly-Cavota, an Army veteran who is the executive director of Veterans Affairs and Military Services at Moravian University, sat next to former state Auditor General Jack Wagner.

A Democrat and a Marine Corps veteran who was wounded in Vietnam, Wagner also said the system needs to be opened up.

A Pew Research Center study about five years ago found that about 49% of veterans are politically independent, Wagner said, and that percentage may be higher now.

“What we’re doing now is to keep them from voting 50% of the time,” Wagner said.

John Opdike, president of the nonprofit Open Primaries, said a nationwide study by the University of Southern California found that states like Pennsylvania that have closed primaries have about 20% lower general election turnout than other states.

David Thornburgh, chairman of Ballot PA, a group pushing to end the closed primary system, said the change was the right thing to do.

Questions of legislators

Several lawmakers, while not opposed to the concept, questioned it.

Republican Rep. Russ Diamond, D-Lebanon County, said the bill as written would require a separate ballot for each independent voter precinct.

That, he said, would increase costs for counties.

He noted that the state allows voters to change their affiliation 15 days before the election. And he said, “You can change it right after the primary.”

Citing the ability to switch affiliations, Republican Rep. Paul Schemel of Franklin County said he doesn’t see how veterans would be less able to do so.

Schemel said the purpose of the primaries was for political parties to choose their candidates. He said he had a philosophical problem with allowing outsiders to join the process.

Two-way disappointment

The hearing comes amid heightened antagonism and bickering between political parties less than three months before the November election.

During the hearing, there were many references to frustration on both sides. One of the leaders of the state’s Libertarian Party recently said it has the most legislative candidates in 28 years.

Tuesday’s meeting was the first in recent memory that the committee has held a hearing on the opening of the primary system, Thornburg said.

He mentioned the Lehigh Valley in his description of what he called Pennsylvania’s independent voter belt, which he described as running from York and Lancaster counties, through the Philadelphia suburbs — including the location of Villanova in Delaware County — and up through the Lehigh Valley into northeastern part of the state.

According to him, these districts have the highest concentration and the fastest growing contingent of voters not affiliated with a major party.

Quinn’s bill was introduced last year and is still pending in a committee chaired by York County Republican Seth Grove.

Lawmakers return to Harrisburg after a two-month absence next month.

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