The Pa. voting system is primed to produce candidates like Doug Mastriano

Overturn the Supreme Court decision Roe v. calf has forced the eyes of many Pennsylvanians to turn to the upcoming governor’s race in November. Because without federal protections for abortion rights, it is now up to the individual states to set the rules that their residents will follow.

The unavoidable truth is that anyone who is in Harrisburg will have an outsized impact on the daily lives of Pennsylvanians. And whoever the Commonwealth elects as its Senator could have a huge impact on national politics.

So let’s take a look at who the Pennsylvanians have nominated for November’s races.

The results of the Pennsylvania primary in May came as no surprise to anyone who has been following the current state of American politics. In a diverse field of candidates in almost every race of national importance, it was those at the political extremes who won nominations. This “major problem,” where low-appeal candidates in low-turnout elections set the course of politics for all, is a national phenomenon. But Pennsylvania is a particularly remarkable example of this – in its toughness, but also in its potential for solution.

For example, look at all the nominees who won major races in their primaries only with majority support.

“There is a way to change this downward spiral of polarization.”

Jason Altmire

On the Republican side, State Senator Doug Mastriano won his party’s primary for governor with just 44% of the vote. He was a leading voice in efforts to overturn the 2020 election results and has admitted to being present at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. TV personality Mehmet Oz and former hedge fund CEO David McCormick were so tied that they required a post-GOP Senate primary recount after both attempted to outdo one another. And while those two were at war over who was the most extreme candidate, little-known political commentator Kathy Barnette — a legitimate and veteran MAGA acolyte — rose in the polls as the election drew near. The outcome of all three disputes over who had the closest appeal to the party’s grassroots? Oz captured the nomination with less than 1/3 of the Republican ballots cast.

You’d think the Democrats would have nominated a surefire favorite for the general election, one with broad appeal. But Lt. gov. John Fetterman, an uncompromisingly progressive and passionate campaigner for popular causes on the left, won a landslide victory over second-place US Rep. Conor Lamb in the Senate primary.

For those interested in moving away from the extremes and giving a voice to those who prefer compromise to conflict, there is a way to break this downward spiral of polarization. In Pennsylvania, that means at least changing some area code restrictions.

Different states conduct primaries differently. Pennsylvania has a “closed” primary process that essentially bars everyone but registered Democrats and registered Republicans from having a say. On the day of the primary, Democrats can only vote for Democratic candidates, the same goes for Republicans. Independent voters are not invited.

The problem with closed primaries is that they reinforce the extremes and encourage candidates to appeal to the combative instincts of the most partisan voters. There are a few reasons for this. Most congressional districts are uncompetitive in the general election, meaning the winning constituency will likely be their primary voters, not the general electorate. These races are off many people’s radar, so the majority of voters (not strong partisans who lack rigid ideologies) often have little incentive to show themselves. But divisive characters can attract a small but powerful group of enthusiastic voters who need only achieve a majority — not consensus — to give their candidate the primary.

These terms do not apply to every election in the same way. But they are common enough to define the politics of this country, including that of Pennsylvania.

A realistic solution, the Ballot PA initiative, would give Pennsylvania’s 1.1 million non-partisan and independent voters the opportunity to vote in the primary of their choosing. Involving independent voters in the primaries could have significant implications. Knowing that candidates need to court votes closer to the center keeps them from playing to the fringes.

The opening of the Commonwealth primary has the support of 75% of Pennsylvanians and was approved by the Pennsylvania Senate by a 42-8 vote in June 2019 before the law stalled at the start of the pandemic. These efforts would help resolve the main issue, bridge the ideological divide and encourage candidates to speak out on important issues rather than simply trying to outdo one another.

If successful, Pennsylvania would join Maine in opening the primary to independent voters this year, leaving only eight states with fully closed primary elections. Other solutions work elsewhere. California and Washington, for example, use a nonpartisan top-two primary where all voters can pick their favorite candidates regardless of party affiliation, and the top two voters go head-to-head in the general election — even if they belong to the same party.

Certainly the results of some of the Pennsylvania primary elections would have been different if such a vote had been given to independents. Making one available to you would be an improvement over the current system and would help reduce the rampant polarization that has consumed our nation’s politics.

Jason Altmire, a Democrat, represented Pennsylvania in Congress from 2007 to 2013. He is a board member of unite americaa nonpartisan electoral reform organization.

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