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Now's the time to address Pennsylvania's terrible voter-turnout rate | John Baer

In a year of supposed voter engagement, in a state where American democracy was born, we still see an electorate more turned off than on.

Voting in last week’s primary election was about this crowded. TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Voting in last week’s primary election was about this crowded. TIM TAI / Staff PhotographerRead morelocal

Hope you caught what we got after all the pre-election hype, campaign coverage, voters' guides, and efforts by good-government groups.

Hope you saw the turnout rate for last week's primary: 18 percent statewide, 17 percent in Philadelphia.

So much for an engaged electorate, voter enthusiasm, and any so-called "wave."

It's embarrassing in a state with our history. Birthplace of American democracy, indeed.

It's depressing to anyone working for or interested in government responsiveness to all its people.

Oh, and it's worse than it seems.

In addition to the vast majority of 7.2 million voters registered R or D who sat out this election, there are (according to census data) an additional 1.6 million Pennsylvanians of voting age not even registered.

There are multiple reasons for our dismal record. Antiquated voting laws and closed primaries are chief among them.

And there are multiple opinions as to what kept down last week's numbers.

"I think it gets to the fact we continue to overestimate the electorate's intensity," says State Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, a 17-year Republican incumbent from Western Pennsylvania.

He also doubts a "wave" this fall (as I do, outside the southeast): "I think we'll see what we've seen in the past," he says.

I'd note Scarnati just announced his support for open primaries. He intends to introduce legislation next month.

It would allow nearly 745,000 registered independents to vote in either party primary; and perhaps allow "cross-party" voting, meaning R's and D's could show up and vote on the other party's ballot.

I've long argued that barring independents from primaries – especially in a large, diverse state in which the primary, thanks to gerrymandering, is often THE election — amounts to disenfranchisement.

Right now, there seems to be agreement on that in Harrisburg.

In addition to Scarnati, House GOP Leader Dave Reed recently called for open primaries. And Gov. Wolf, according to a spokesman, is "generally supportive" of independents voting in primaries.

But there's more that can and should be done.

Micah Sims, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, says low turnout last week was not due to the quality of races, especially at the congressional level.

"It's the structure," he says. "And we need to change the structure."

That would include, in addition to ending closed primaries, pushing reforms sought by Wolf: same-day registration; automatic registration when getting a driver's license; no-excuse absentee balloting; and campaign-finance reform.

I'd add, it's also past time for us to join 37 other states that allow early voting.

And we should pay attention to less obvious factors.

Philadelphia City Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, a former deputy commissioner of elections, points to two things impacting turnout numbers.

She says the city's low numbers are, in part, due to inflated (unpurged) voting lists: "The lists are horrendous. They have not been cleaned up in years."

And she notes a cultural element at work in the Latino community: "People vote every four years in Puerto Rico. For every office. They get used to that. For some it's difficult to sell voting in non-presidential years."

It is usually fruitless to hope for any positive change from Harrisburg. But when leaders in the House and Senate AND the governor agree on something, it at least has a chance.

It's also noteworthy that a Senate committee this week unanimously approved and sent to the floor a reform bill creating a citizens' redistricting commission. It requires amending the state constitution. A heavy lift. But it's a start.

A better, less partisan process for district maps for Congress and the legislature is one way to build public trust and improve voter turnout.

Yet all of this — open primary, citizens' commission, calls for reform — could well be just more election-year head fakes. Look at us, we're doing stuff.

It's just that when it comes to voting there's a real need for stuff to get done.

As I've written in the past, Pennsylvania is among the worst states in terms of running elections (and so much else). The Electoral Integrity Project, after the 2016 elections, ranked us 45th.

Now would be a good time to seek a higher ranking.