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Pennsylvania Independents Demand Equal Access to Elections

by Shawn M. Griffiths, published

"Today, I and many other citizens of Pennsylvania will be denied the right to vote," independent Pennsylvania voter Tom Stack wrote in a letter to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "It is not because we are in prison or non-citizens. It is because we are registered Independents or not affiliated with a political party."

The Pennsylvania primaries will be held on Tuesday, May 20, along with the 2014 primary elections in Oregon, Kentucky, Idaho, Georgia, and Arkansas. Four out of the six states holding primaries on Tuesday have semi-closed or closed partisan primaries, meaning voters not affiliated with either major party must give up their status as an independent or third-party voter to have full access to the public election process.

Even if it is for a single day, participation in these primaries requires unaffiliated voters to sacrifice their First Amendment right of non-association to have a say in a pivotal stage of the election process to decide which candidate will end up representing them. While political parties are not guaranteed a spot on the ballot by the U.S. Constitution, the Constitution does guarantee individual voters the right to equal access to elections.

However, many states have a bigger interest in protecting the rights of political parties over the rights of individual voters. Just ask New Jersey's secretary of state, Kim Guadagno.



Yet, as the number of independent voters continues to rise nationwide, the movement to end partisanship in the electoral process is also growing, and traditional media outlets cannot ignore this segment of the voting population anymore. Mr. Stack's letter to the editor was not the only opinion published by a Pennsylvania news site in the last few days.

"Pennsylvania's primary is Tuesday, May 20, and it's time for Republicans and Democrats to start picking up the tab," says a Sunday editorial in Lancaster Online. "If the major parties want to continue the practice of having a "closed" primary, that is."

"The closed primary could be justified — sort of — back in the day when independents were rarer than honest politicians. But today, with the percentage of independents and third-party voters climbing, it makes no sense to continue the closed primary. In fact, it's offensive"

According to the article, over 1.1 million voters in Pennsylvania are independent or third-party voters. G. Terry Madonna told Lancaster Online that the state's registration numbers are skewed as a result of the primary system because more people would likely register as independent or with a third party if they knew they wouldn't be denied access to the primaries. While it is unclear just how many more voters would register independent or with a minor party, electoral systems that divide voters between two parties does make it difficult to accurately assess affiliation.

The editorial urges independent voters to take action:

"Independents are becoming a force to be reckoned with. Exercise your power to fight the system. Demand open primaries, or party-funded closed primaries. More rank-and-file Democrats and Republicans will support that than you might imagine."

Many independent voters are looking for the right opportunity to take action, including keeping an eye on a lawsuit in New Jersey challenging the constitutionality of the state's partisan primary system. In an interview for The Meadville Tribune, Jennifer Bullock of the Independent Voters of Pennsylvania says a similar legal challenge in Pennsylvania could be necessary to guarantee equal access to elections for all voters.



The articles author, John Finnerty, indicates that there could be an opening for a similar lawsuit in Pennsylvania., founded by the Independent Voter Project and, argues that the primary system in New Jersey violates voting rights guaranteed by federal and state law. Finnerty quotes the Pennsylvania Constitution:

"Elections shall be free and equal; and no power, civil or military, shall at any time interfere to prevent the free exercise of the right of suffrage.”

For over one million voters in Pennsylvania -- approximately 13 percent of the electorate -- the first stage of the electoral process is neither free nor equal. However, Finnerty makes an important point that the public-funding argument against partisan primaries does not just affect independent voters.

"About 87 percent of us are registered to vote, but only 42 percent of adults can vote in the Democratic primary," he writes. "Just 32 percent can vote in the Republican one."

This means for each primary election, the majority of the voting population in Pennsylvania helps pay for an election they cannot vote in. Republicans are paying for Democratic elections and Democrats are paying for Republican elections. Why would party members want to pay for the activities of an opposing party?

Independents in Pennsylvania may not make up as high of a percentage of the electorate as Massachusetts independents or New Jersey independents -- around or over 50 percent of their state's electorate -- but they do ask that their right to meaningful participation in public elections be upheld and protected by the state. Right now, voters not affiliated with the major parties in many states, including Pennsylvania, are disenfranchised by a system that is supposed to give them an equal voice in who represents them in government.

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