There’s no way to tell how many veterans ever voted from a foxhole. But while deployed or under any circumstances, members of the military and veterans at home should have that right.

For the most part, they do when it comes to general elections, but in Pennsylvania and eight other states, the critical primary elections to select the candidates to face each other in a general election are closed to independents, and nearly half of the state’s 800,000 veterans are identified in that category. The numbers are even higher for all unaffiliated voters in the state: 1.3 million.  

The closed primary system means that voters can only do so if they are registered Democrats or Republicans.

READ MORE — Report: Pennsylvania election integrity middle of the pack

A bipartisan initiative, Ballot PA, proposes to repeal closed primaries and there are two similar measures currently in the Pennsylvania General Assembly that would open primaries to veterans and other disenfranchised voters in the state. 

The initiative is starting to draw attention. A rally was held recently near Lancaster announcing the endorsement of the effort by the national group, Veterans for Political Innovation.

There is an impressive list of prominent Pennsylvanians heading this initiative, which is being shepherded along by David Thornburgh, formerly of Philadelphia’s Committee of Seventy. “We can no longer overlook what I and others view as a transgression of fundamental rights for this important segment of the electorate,” Thornburgh said.

Perhaps the best known of this group is former Pittsburgh Steeler Rocky Bleier, who was severely wounded as an Army infantryman in Vietnam. Bleier an honorary co-chair of this initiative with retired Brig. Gen. Wilbur E. Wolf, who served in the active Army and Army National Guard.

“How can we explain to a young man or woman returning home from a deployment that they have no voice in a primary election? It’s wrong – and downright un-American,” said Bleier in a press release. 

“It’s time to repeal closed primaries and to give the Commonwealth’s veterans the same voting rights already enjoyed by their peers elsewhere in the nation,” said Wolf. 

Repealing closed primaries will open a door for veterans who feel left out of the political process and help them better integrate with their communities when they return.

“When I returned home, I was a registered Independent who joined a party so I could represent my community in Congress,” said former paratrooper and former Congressman Patrick Murphy. “We need to give our veterans more opportunities to engage in their communities when they return home, whether it is public service or business. Repealing closed primaries will open a door for veterans who feel left out of the political process and help them better integrate with their communities when they return.”

“That veterans choose to register as independents doesn’t surprise most of us who have served,” said former state senator Jack Wagner, who received a Purple Heart for his service as a Marine in Vietnam. “Donning the military uniform is not an act of partisanship, and the cloak of patriotism is neither red nor blue – but rather red, white, and blue. We need to repeal closed primaries for our veterans who believe in country over partisanship.”

Even though all Pennsylvania taxpayers shoulder the cost of administering elections, independent and unaffiliated voters cannot cast primary votes.

The House State Government Committee has scheduled a vote on Oct. 26 on Bill 1369, which would repeal closed primaries. Rep. Chris Quinn (R-Delaware) is the bill’s prime sponsor. Also pending is Senate Bill 690, which, like the legislation in the House, would allow independent registered voters to choose to cast their vote on either the Republican or Democratic ballot in a primary election. Sen. Daniel Laughlin (R-Erie) is the bill’s prime sponsor.

Terry Williamson is a writer who served as an infantry officer in Vietnam. He is currently working on a novel on PTSD.

One thought on “Terry Williamson: Veterans should work for open primaries in Pennsylvania”

  1. Terry – good news – Veterans for Political Innovation ( is on the ground in Pennsylvania and in support of Open Primaries. We’re partnered with BallotPA and just had an event last week. Your Op Ed is spot on – thanks for your advocacy here.

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