Editorial Roundup: Pennsylvania

Lancaster Lancaster Online/LNP. May 8, 2022.

Editorial: Pennsylvania’s closed primaries diminish democracy and encourage extremism

THE ISSUE

When Lancaster County residents cast their ballots in the May 17 primary election, more than 57,000 registered voters here will be excluded from having their say. That’s because more than 38,000 of them are registered as having no political party affiliation, and nearly 19,000 of them are registered as third-party voters. Across Pennsylvania, the number of voters not affiliated with either of the two major parties is nearly 1.3 million. As Spotlight PA’s Kate Huangpu reported in a story published in last week’s Sunday LNP ' LancasterOnline, “Pennsylvania is one of only nine states with a closed primary system. People who register without a party affiliation or with smaller third parties, such as the Green or the Libertarian Party, are unable to vote for Democratic or Republican candidates in the spring races that determine who runs in the general election.” Spotlight PA is a nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer; its partners include LNP Media Group.

In Lancaster County, where registered Republicans continue to outnumber registered Democrats, the general election often is essentially decided in the primary.

Basically, whichever Republican candidate wins in the spring will win in the fall.

This works for those GOP candidates and for their supporters. But it doesn’t work for the unaffiliated and third-party registered voters who are not permitted to vote for candidates in primary elections.

All they get is taxation without representation. Their taxes pay for the salaries of elected officials they essentially didn’t get to choose.

It’s a lousy deal.

And, to add insult to injury, their tax dollars help to pay for the primaries from which they are excluded. Primary elections cost Pennsylvania an estimated $20 million each year and they’re administered, like general elections, by taxpayer-funded county elections offices.

Closed primaries are not just fundamentally unfair. They also encourage extremism and diminish democracy. They encourage candidates to play to their party’s base, rather than to seek to win support from a broad swath of voters. Because turnout tends to be low in nonpresidential primary elections, candidates end up trying to appeal to the most die-hard of their party’s voters.

So you get a congressman who acts as a patsy for his party rather than a true public servant. You get state lawmakers who don’t accomplish much in Harrisburg but still get reelected repeatedly.

And you get important constitutional amendments and statewide referendums that are passed by a smaller percentage of voters, because unaffiliated and third-party candidates often aren’t tuned into primary elections in which they have no ability to vote for the candidates.

As Spotlight PA reported, the number of Pennsylvania voters not affiliated with either of the two major parties “rose by nearly 10% between 2016 and 2020 — outpacing gains made by Democrats and Republicans.”

For this and other reasons, Ballot PA — a project of the good-government group Committee of Seventy, in partnership with other organizations including Common Cause PA and this state’s League of Women Voters — has launched a campaign to repeal Pennsylvania’s closed primary process.

Ballot PA wants to see the passage of state Senate Bill 690 (the bill in the other chamber is House Bill 1369).

We do, too.

The legislation would allow unaffiliated voters to cast ballots in either the Republican or Democratic primary. (Third-party voters still would be excluded; we’d like to see potential solutions for them, too.) The bills were referred to their respective State Government Committees last May.

As Spotlight PA reported, a previous version of SB 690 “passed the state Senate in 2019, in a 42-8 vote, but was never brought up for a vote in the state House.”

That was before Republican state Rep. Bryan Cutler, of Drumore Township, became the speaker of the House (though he was the House majority leader at the time). We’d urge Cutler to ensure that the legislation gets serious consideration and a vote in the House this time around.

As for its current prospects in the Senate, Republican state Sen. Dave Argall — who now chairs the Senate State Government Committee — voted for the 2019 bill that would have opened Pennsylvania’s primaries to unaffiliated voters, Spotlight PA reported.

Argall told Spotlight PA that he still approves of the legislation but wants to learn more about its potential effects and about the views of his fellow committee members before bringing it up for a vote. We fervently hope this is not Harrisburg-speak for “the bill probably will die in committee.”

“Some states may allow Republicans to vote in the Democratic (primary), Democrats to vote in the Republican primary. That kind of free-for-all can lead to mischief,” Argall told Spotlight PA. “And so, you know, the devil is always going to be in the details.”

We have our own concerns about such crossover voting, though candidates themselves can “cross over” by cross-filing on both parties’ ballots in some races.

But as Spotlight PA pointed out, “The bill pending in Pennsylvania would not allow this.” Registered Democrats still would have to vote in the Democratic primary, and registered Republicans still would have to vote in the Republican primary. So our primaries would not be free-for-alls. They would simply be fairer.

In a column last month for LNP ' LancasterOnline, former Republican state Sens. Michael Brubaker and Gib Armstrong noted that with open seats for both governor and the U.S. Senate, as well as races for newly redrawn congressional and state legislative districts, the May 17 primary will be “the most consequential primary election in Pennsylvania history.”

They wrote: “Pennsylvania could decide control of the U.S. Senate or the U.S. House of Representatives. ... Republicans and Democrats will be able to weigh in on some of the most important elections in the country, but unaffiliated voters and independents will be shut out.”

Such voters “cannot take action to hold their elected officials accountable, and they cannot express their needs for representation,” Brubaker and Armstrong wrote, noting that “it’s no surprise that more and more Pennsylvanians are feeling disillusioned and disconnected from our institutions. Poll after poll shows that Pennsylvanians are frustrated with the political system. Too many Pennsylvanians pay for a system that shuts them out. Something needs to change.”

We couldn’t agree more.

We should want more voter participation in all of our elections. We should want candidates to be motivated to appeal to a broader mix of voters. We should want the rising number of unaffiliated and independent voters — many of them younger voters — to have their say. Opening primary elections to unaffiliated voters would accomplish those aims.

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Philadelphia Daily News/Inquirer. May 5, 2022.

Editorial: Sealing the criminal records of more former offenders is the right move for Pa.

It’s time for state lawmakers to expand a program that would keep the records of formerly incarcerated people out of public view.

For too many Pennsylvanians, a criminal record from decades ago can be the primary obstacle separating them from a job, a livelihood, and a chance at a fresh start.

While those released from prison, probation, and parole are judged to have paid their debt to society upon the completion of their sentences, the social and economic consequences of having a record of criminal convictions can linger for the rest of their lives. Background checks can lead to lost job opportunities, denial of housing, and other serious consequences.

The difficulty of living life after a conviction harms not only returning citizens but their families and communities as well. It is demoralizing for formerly incarcerated people to know so many of the doors that someone needs to live their version of the American dream are closed. It is no surprise that, faced with a world that will not give them adequate work or housing, 67% of returning citizens reoffend within a year.

In recognition of these challenges, Pennsylvania became a pioneer in 2018 by passing the nation’s first Clean Slate law, which automatically sealed some government records, keeping them from public view. Community Legal Services says the law has already sealed 40 million cases and helped more than 1.2 million people. While initially Pennsylvania stood alone, today there are 42 states that offer similar relief, and the list has consistently grown.

Still, while it represented an essential first step and a pragmatic compromise on behalf of advocates, Clean Slate didn’t include everyone who could have benefited from the program. Many nonviolent offenders who had served their time were not included in the bill that created the program, including those convicted of possessing just enough marijuana to warrant a felony prosecution. Under current Clean Slate regulations, someone convicted of stealing at least $2,000 worth of merchandise, the threshold that triggers felony theft charges, was not eligible for inclusion in the program.

That’s why it is important to pass what advocates are calling Clean Slate 3.0, a proposal that would allow Pennsylvania to join 37 states that offer the sealing of felony records in limited, clearly defined cases. Under Clean Slate 3.0, drug convictions would be sealed automatically, just as misdemeanors are handled today, while felony property crimes, such as theft or fraud, would be subject to a petition process. This would allow more of Pennsylvania’s returning citizens to rejoin the workforce and avoid reoffending.

Take, for example, the story of Donna Gathright, an advocate for Clean Slate, founder of the Female Offenders Re-Entry Program, and a former offender herself. Gathright did something that’s currently legal in New Jersey and 17 other states: She sold marijuana. Not only that, she sold enough to qualify for felony charges, despite the fact that she was not armed, had no prior convictions, and was a single mother with two young children. If the expanded Clean Slate bill passes this session, Gathright’s record would be one among many that would be permanently sealed.

While Pennsylvania′s first-in-the-nation Clean Slate law has already helped many, it offered no relief for others looking for an opportunity to reboot their lives. Now is the time for the commonwealth to join 37 other states in allowing the sealing of nonviolent felony records.

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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. May 6, 2022.

Editorial: State retirement plan would save taxpayers by helping workers save

About two million private sector workers in Pennsylvania — more than 40% of the workforce — don’t have access to an automatic retirement savings plan from their employers. The resulting retirement shortfall is expected to cost Pennsylvania about a billion dollars in social services every year over the next 15 years.

Keystone Saves, a program now being considered by the state legislature as HB 2156, would offer a cost-free retirement savings option for workers whose employers don’t offer such plans. A variety of private organizations, including AARP, the United Way and the Pew Charitable Trusts support it. So does a broad-based, bipartisan coalition, including Republican state Treasurer Stacy Garrity, Democratic state Rep. Michael Driscoll of Philadelphia and Republican state Rep. Tracy Pennycuick of Montgomery County. A variety of Pittsburgh-area legislators from both parties have co-sponsored the bill.

According to the Keystone Saves’ supporters, workers are 15 times more likely to contribute to a retirement account if it is offered through their job, as opposed to setting up an IRA themselves. Visualizing the future is hard, and understanding how even small contributions early in life can generate big rewards later isn’t always intuitive — all the more so when you’re simply trying to make ends meet in the here and now.

Retirement? When you’re 20-something and trying to make rent? When you’re 50-something and trying to pay the mortgage and put your kids through school?

Wealthier Americans have access to professional financial planners who can do all the heavy lifting for them. The fact that advanced degrees and certifications are required to do this planning well shows just how complex it can be.

Keystone Saves would allow employers who can’t afford or manage a retirement system on their own to opt into a cost-free state-facilitated system, similar to existing 529 Education Savings Accounts. All employers would have to do is provide a list of participating employees to the state and process a simple payroll deduction. Keystone Saves would do the rest, putting the money into a simple, portable IRA for workers.

The program would not discourage employers from offering their own retirement plans, for two reasons. First, companies with already-existing retirement plans won’t be eligible. Second, since employers don’t contribute to Keystone Saves, many companies will still want to lure workers with more generous employer-match plans.

We urge the legislature to pass Keystone Saves quickly. Pennsylvania workers and the future state economy need it.

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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. May 9, 2022.

Editorial: Independent voters need to be engaged in primary process

In an increasingly partisan Pennsylvania, the way for one party or the other to win isn’t about the people who register Republican or Democrat.

It’s about engaging the independents who haven’t declared a side.

There are about 1.3 million registered independent voters in Pennsylvania. They make up about 15% of the state’s electorate. Nationally, about 40% of people embrace the label, even if they pick a party — such as Sen. Bernie Sanders, who serves as an independent but ran for president as a Democrat. Gallup shows that while Democrat and Republican registrations are down, independents are on the rise.

But if there is one thing that makes it hard to engage these up-for-grab voters, it’s the fact Democrats and Republicans get to vote twice a year. In Pennsylvania, Independents get to do so only once.

On May 17, Pennsylvanians will go to the polls to pick the candidates who will be on the ballot in the fall. They will narrow down the wide field for a GOP candidate in the governor’s race and the equally broad options on both tickets for U.S. Senate, not to mention all those state legislator races.

But independents are left out.

It might seem obvious that only Republicans get to vote in the Republican primary. Same for Democrats. But in most states, there are options. Only nine states have primaries as locked down as Pennsylvania’s. Others might allow for independents to pick one ballot on Election Day. Others allow day-of-voting registration, which provides more flexibility.

“The primary election really is often the only election … so if you don’t get to vote in the primary, you basically don’t have a vote,” said David Thornburgh, executive director of Ballot PA, in a recent Spotlight PA story.

For example, in a local or state legislative race, incumbents can have an edge. With cross registration or write-in voting, they might sew up a race in the primaries, leaving independents without a say. That makes it hard to keep those voters engaged. State lawmakers are looking at ways to tweak how we vote on the heels of dissatisfaction with the 2019 voting law changes. While they are at it, they should consider something to give 15% of the state’s voters the opportunity for engagement they deserve.

Opening the primaries more would be a way to increase voter turnout, get more people participating and let the parties make a real case for their platforms to the very body of voters they most need to excite.

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Scranton Times-Tribune. May 10, 2022.

Editorial: Jonesing for medicinal pot transparency

More than 4% of Pennsylvanians, about 550,000 people, are qualified by the state government to use marijuana to treat pain, anxiety disorders, epilepsy and — unlike in many other states that allow medical marijuana use — opioid use disorder.

The program clearly is a matter of public interest. It is strictly regulated by the state government, and it touches on important public policy ranging from public health to state tax revenue.

Yet the Wolf administration remains strangely addicted to secrecy regarding at least one element of the program — the number of people who have been qualified to use marijuana to treat opioid addiction.

That use is controversial. Even though many people who have been addicted to opioids have testified that marijuana has helped them recover, there is scant scientific evidence that marijuana is an effective treatment for opioid use disorder.

When the news organization Spotlight PA asked the state Department of Health for data on the number of people authorized to use marijuana to treat opioid addiction, the department refused even though such data obviously is public information. Spotlight PA won its appeal to the state Office of Open Records, which directed the department to release the information, but the administration appealed to Commonwealth Court. The appeal hearing is scheduled for later this month.

In maintaining secrecy, the department contended that state law requires it to maintain the privacy of authorized marijuana users. So it does. But Spotlight PA asked only for aggregate data regarding the number of authorized users for each category. It made clear in its request and in the department’s appeals that it does not seek access to any individual identities or records.

The state’s stance contradicts its own previous conduct. It previously had released data on anxiety treatment. And in August, it released data on the numbers of qualified users in each county. (Lackawanna, 12,531; Luzerne, 15,844; Monroe, 6,702; Pike, 3,018; Susquehanna, 1,831; Wayne, 2,521; Wyoming, 1,713.)

Regardless of the data’s potential impact on the debate over whether pot should be a qualified treatment for opioid use disorder, the data is public property. The administration should withdraw its appeal and release the information.

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Wilkes-Barre Citizens Voice. May 8, 2022.

Editorial: State must be pro-life beyond birth

The leaked Supreme Court draft opinion that portends the demise of Roe v. Wade, which established a constitutional right to abortion in 1973, also would overturn the 1992 decision in Planned Parenthood of Southeast Pennsylvania v. Casey.

Gov. Robert P. Casey, of Scranton, helped to craft and signed the Pennsylvania Abortion Control Act, after vetoing a bill that anti-abortion advocates had devised directly to challenge Roe v. Wade. The law that Casey signed prompted Planned Parenthood’s suit on grounds that the law violated the constitutional protection for abortion established by Roe v. Wade. Ruling in the case, the Supreme Court affirmed the constitutional right to abortion in Roe but established a public interest in and governmental right to regulate abortion.

Now, anticipating Roe’s demise, Republican state legislators are eager to act. Rep. Kathy Rapp of Warren County, chairwoman of the House Health Committee, said her caucus “is already well-positioned to successfully advance some of the strongest pro-life legislation in the history of our commonwealth.”

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, an abortion-rights advocate, will veto such legislation. He is in his last year in office, so the abortion issue will loom large in impending legislative and gubernatorial elections.

Policy divide at birth

Lawmakers should be guided by Casey’s views. He contradicted Democratic Party orthodoxy in opposing abortion, and infamously was denied the opportunity to speak on the subject at the 1992 Democratic convention, even though Pennsylvania then was the largest state with a Democratic governor.

He made good use of the controversy, conducting a series of heavily attended news conferences. Asked by one journalist why he did not switch parties, he offered a revealing reply: “Because the Republicans and I part company at birth.”

Casey bristled when he was labeled a conservative, because he saw his pro-life stance as an extension of Democratic Party principles. He held that the issue was not only ending abortion, but using the power of the state to build the social and economic infrastructure to enable mothers, children and families to thrive.

The most obvious manifestation of that view is the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which Casey launched and which now guarantees health coverage for every young child in the state. But Casey incorporated the philosophy into his governance regarding education, health care, assistance for the elderly and so on.

Contradictory state policy

That is not the governance template for most of today’s “pro-life” legislators, for whom the term is a distinct issue covering pregnancy and is not tied to other elements of state policy.

It is evident in the Republican majorities’ refusal to set a fair minimum wage, which last was raised to just $7.25 an hour when the federal government did so in 2009. Pennsylvania today is the only state in the entire Northeast with so low a rate, which cannot support a mother and child, much less a larger family.

Lawmakers willfully underfund some of the state’s poorest school districts by refusing to apply the state’s fair-funding formula to all state education funding. The Scranton School District alone would receive $30 million more every year under universal fair funding.

Likewise, Pennsylvania does not have universal pre-kindergarten or affordable child-care access. And shamefully, the United States has the highest maternal mortality rate and 33rd-highest infant mortality rate among the 36 countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

As candidates tout their pro-life credentials in this fall’s legislative, congressional, Senate and gubernatorial campaigns, Pennsylvanians should recognize that their definition of “pro-life” is not a synonym for “pro-family.”

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