As someone who served as the Director of Elections in Mercer County in northwestern Pennsylvania for nearly fourteen years, I know as well as anyone how complicated it can be to run free and fair elections. Advances in technology and changes in the law require local election officials to always be on their toes to ensure they’re keeping up with all the changes.
That isn’t to say change is a bad thing. I believe we should constantly examine our processes to ensure we are adhering to the very best practices for our elections to be conducted fairly and in a manner that inspires public confidence. Sweeping changes were made to our electoral system with Act 77 of 2019, which expanded access to mail-in voting, are complex undertakings that require meticulous planning and additional resources to execute.
As the state contemplates additional changes, it would be wise to do so carefully and not in haste. It’s particularly important that engagement with county election officials occurs in order to learn from them the best ways to implement and administer any proposal.
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A number of changes to Pennsylvania’s election law currently are being debated in Harrisburg, and I believe these conversations are vital to maintaining the vibrancy of democracy in the state where it was born. I applaud all the legislators who are thinking about ways to improve our election systems, but I hope they will take the time to carefully study each proposed reform and not rush into any reform that could have unintended consequences or costs if not undertaken carefully.
One of the proposals that has been debated thoroughly and is ripe for implementation is ending Pennsylvania’s archaic system of closed primary elections that effectively disenfranchises more than 1.2 million Pennsylvania voters. These registered independents are not affiliated with any political party and are unable to participate in primary elections under current law.
It’s really a simple matter of fairness. There is no good reason why these voters, whose taxes pay for the elections that exclude them, shouldn’t have a say in choosing their leaders. This is especially true when it comes to local races, roughly 90 percent of which are effectively decided in the primary. Independent voters deserve to have their voices heard in open primaries.
From an election administration perspective, an open primaries would be relatively simple and inexpensive, and it carries no real risk of creating negative complications. The biggest impacts would be on ballot programming and printing, poll worker training, and voter education, but it would allow more Pennsylvanians to participate in democracy and that is a good thing.
Ending Pennsylvania’s closed primary system and enfranchising registered independents is one of the avenues that’s been vetted, enjoys broad support, and will make our local democracy stronger.
The proposal has been debated for years in Harrisburg and actually passed the Senate in 2019. Pennsylvania is an outlier among its peers, as only nine states have rules that shut out independents from primary elections. It’s time we made the obvious call to fix this problem. Polling shows it’s popular with almost three quarters of Pennsylvania voters, conservative Republicans and progressive Democrats alike, and it has been endorsed by almost two dozen newspapers from across the state.
There are many other interesting election reform ideas being considered in Harrisburg, like ranked-choice voting and runoff elections, but such systems are substantially more complex and in need of further study before being implemented here. In the meantime, we’ll have the benefit of watching other states experiment with these changes to size up their effects on election operations and outcomes.
For now, the advent of mail-in voting in 2019 was a major step forward, and it’s time to prioritize commonsense improvements like providing more time to process these ballots and ensuring county officials have adequate training and resources. Allowing independents to vote in open primaries should be part of this list. Meanwhile, county election officials — the people on the front lines of election administration — should also be at the table to provide input on every potential reform to ensure successful implementation.
It’s heartening to see the General Assembly taking election reform so seriously and exploring all possible avenues to ensure our elections will always be free, fair, safe and secure. Ending Pennsylvania’s closed primary system and enfranchising registered independents is one of the avenues that’s been vetted, enjoys broad support, and will make our local democracy stronger. I urge all our legislators to take up this desperately needed reform right away, while their work on more sweeping reforms continues at an appropriate pace.
Jeff Greenburg is Senior Advisor on Election Administration for the Committee of Seventy. He previously served fourteen years as Mercer County’s Director of Elections.