Many Pennsylvania veterans see government as of the people, for the people, by the people and not as one of politics, so they remain politically independent — and shut out of the state’s closed primary elections.
That was the general message conveyed by two veterans — including Marilyn Kelly-Cavotta of Bethlehem — during testimony last week before the House State Government Committee.
The hearing, at Villanova University, focused on a bill that would open the state’s primaries to all voters, not just Republicans and Democrats.
Kelly-Cavotta invoked Abraham Lincoln’s timeless of the people phrasing in the Gettysburg Address to urge lawmakers to pass the bill.
“Honor that saying by allowing independent veteran voters the right to vote in all elections,” she said.
Pennsylvania is one of nine states that limits primary participation to Democrats and Republicans.
The bill was sponsored by Delaware County Rep. Chris Quinn, a Republican. A 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 major parties that they dominate all of the ideas and all of the solutions.
The truth, Solomon said, is approval ratings for both parties are in the tank and more voices must be brought into the process.
“What we know is the status quo is not working,” Solomon said.
There are about 8.8 million registered voters in the state, including about 4 million Democrats, 3.5 million Republicans, more than 920,000 no affiliation voters and more than 370,000 other voters. The latter two categories were the focus of arguments that the Pennsylvania primary process should be changed.
Kelly-Cavotta, an Army veteran who is executive director of veteran and military services at Moravian University, sat beside former state Auditor General Jack Wagner.
A Democrat and Marine Corps veteran who was wounded in Vietnam, Wagner also said the system should be opened up.
A Pew Research Center study done about five years ago found about 49% of veterans are politically independent, Wagner said, and the percentage may be higher now.
“What we are presently doing is keeping them from voting 50% of the time,” Wagner said.
John Opdycke, president of nonprofit Open Primaries, said nationwide research by the University of Southern California showed states like Pennsylvania that have closed primaries have about 20% lower turnout in general elections than other states.
David Thornburgh, chair of Ballot PA, a group seeking repeal of the closed primary system, said making a change was the right thing to do.
Several lawmakers, without making outright objections to the concept, questioned it.
Republican Rep. Russ Diamond of Lebanon County said the bill as written would require the creation of a separate ballot for every precinct to accommodate independent voters.
That, he said, would drive up costs for counties.
He noted the state lets voters change their affiliation up to 15 days before an election. And, he said, “You can change it right back after a primary.”
Citing that ability to switch affiliations, Republican Rep. Paul Schemel of Franklin County said he could not see how veterans would be less able to do so.
Schemel said the intent of primaries was for political parties to select their nominees. He said he had a philosophical problem with letting outsiders join in that process.
The hearing came as antagonism and vitriol between political parties are on the rise, less than three months before the November election.
There were multiple references during the hearing to disillusionment with both parties. Recently, a leader of the state’s Libertarian Party said it has the most legislative candidates up for election it has had in 28 years.
The Tuesday session was, according to Thornburgh, the first time in recent memory the committee held a hearing on opening the primary system.
He mentioned the Lehigh Valley in his description of what he called the independent voter belt in Pennsylvania, which he described as running from York and Lancaster counties, through the Philadelphia suburbs — including Villanova’s location in Delaware County — and up through the Lehigh Valley into the northeastern part of the state.
Those areas, he said, have the highest concentration and fastest-growing contingents of voters not affiliated with a major party.
Quinn’s bill was introduced last year and remains under consideration by the committee, headed by York County Republican Rep. Seth Grove.
Lawmakers return to Harrisburg after a two-month absence next month.
Source: Berkshire mont