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  • James Lundberg

Playing with our ballots as usual

No excuse mail-in voting has come to Pennsylvania and is a great way to expand voter participation, especially in the midst of a pandemic. But it is a major change that comes with new challenges and controversies. The trick is to find the right balance among the three legs of the stool: access, security, and timing (in requesting, submitting and counting ballots). Recently, our two dominant political parties, and their legions of lawyers, have been waging a pitched battle over issues such as drop boxes, ballot harvesting, “naked” ballots, and deadlines for sending and accepting ballots. As in Independent voter I could not help but note that, for every single issue, the respective parties argue for an outcome that would likely improve their odds on winning the current election as opposed to (say) an outcome that would be best for our democracy. Why is that not a surprise?

While the Democratic and Republican parties focus their energy on trying to tweak the rules to try to tilt elections in their favor, most experts agree that the most pressing issue with mail-in voting is potential voter confusion. Based on the recent Pennsylvania primaries, and elections in other States, it is clear that many people who are voting by mail for the first time do not fully understand the process, and may make mistakes that will invalidate their ballots. Unlike those voting in person, they cannot ask poll workers to answer a question or to give them a substitute ballot if they happen to make a mistake. Sometimes, they may just have to drop their ballot in the mail and hope it is accepted.

Can you imagine the anxiety and frustration of fearing your vote won’t count? Just ask any Independent. Pennsylvania is one of the nine remaining States where primary elections are fully closed, and we can’t vote in them. Most Congressional and Legislative districts are “safe” for one or the other major party, so in many races we are barred from voting in the only election that really matters.

While the Democrats and Republicans fight bitterly to gain the larger share of the electoral pie, they tend to work together, behind the scene, to ensure that their duopoly controls the process, and that no one else can get a piece. The rigged system, and woefully low voter turnout in primaries, effectively excludes third party candidates, but also any “D” or “R” who does not toe the party line on every issue and may – Heaven forbid – even be tempted to reach across the aisle to seek a pragmatic compromise. The resulting partisan divide and legislative gridlock impacts all our citizens. When a recent Franklin and Marshall poll asked PA voters to name the one change they would most like to see in our elections, the two top answers, by far, were “How candidates get on ballot” and “Third party”. 67% were in favor of “open primary elections”. Clearly, Pennsylvanians don’t feel that the present system is giving them viable choices.

Ironically, more voters identify as “independent” than either Democrat or Republican. So how were these parties – actually, the far fewer core members who vote in primaries –able to grasp control of our electoral system? The simplest answer is that we let it happen. But the winds of systemic change are blowing harder each day. While the duopoly is preoccupied with how to game the current system to their respective advantage, we, the people, need to come together to seize this historic opportunity to promote true reforms that will help us recapture our democracy.

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