Matthew Zencey

is the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News, who now lives in West Chester

Last week, I voted in my first Pennsylvania primary, and I'm scratching my head about the way you folks do political things.

I went to college here 30-plus years ago, but back then I voted in my home state, Delaware. Not long after college graduation, I ran away to a life of adventure in a certain far-north state that was so young that it had a chance to learn from the mistakes the 48 other states made in setting up their governments. (Yes, that state recently produced a vice presidential nominee famous for wearing Naughty Monkey peep-toe pumps, but, hey, nobody's perfect.)

Now that I'm back in my ancestral area, I have some questions for you.

What exactly does a prothonotary do? And what's with electing somebody to be "registrar of wills"? Can't you just place a classified ad and hire a clerk to do that for about $50K a year?

Why do you let candidates cross-file on the ballot of the other party, but voters have to declare a party and can vote for only that party's candidates? If a candidate gets to play both sides of the ballot, why can't voters do the same?

Also, I'm not too keen on electing judges. Before heading to vote, I looked up who the bar association said was qualified, but that was about all I knew before making my decision.

In Alaska, a nonpartisan agency screens the professional qualifications of judicial applicants and makes recommendations to the governor, who makes the final choice. Every so often, voters get a chance to throw out or retain the judge. The same nonpartisan agency evaluates the judge's performance, so voters can have some basis for their decision.

That system has worked pretty well. A handful of duds have been voted out, but the judiciary has been free of scandal. Nothing like that outrageous cash-for-kids deal they had up there in anthracite country.

Even if you don't have corrupt pols getting onto the bench, filling the judicial branch with elected judges is risky. They have to cater to a party organization, then raise lots of money from lawyers and companies whose cases they'll be handling, before finally pandering to the people who elect them. Like the Founders, I'd prefer a judiciary that's more insulated from the corruption of politics and the passions of the masses.

Speaking of candidates raising money: You let special interests and rich people give as much money as they want to a candidate. Are you crazy?

Pennsylvania was the cradle of American democracy, home to Independence Hall, one-time capital of the nation, host to the Constitutional Convention. And you let your elected officials sell themselves to the highest bidder? Even the corporations-are-persons justices on the U.S. Supreme Court recognize it's OK to set limits on how much influence-peddlers can hand over to candidates.

When I went to vote, I was stunned to see a forest of political signs right by the entrance to the polling place. I was even more stunned to go inside and be greeted by political partisans, hawking info on their candidates and handing out free food.

Now, I can't be bought for a cupcake, but why are ward heelers and political hacks even allowed to tempt me right before the moment of decision?

I understand that one reason you have these antiquated, antidemocratic arrangements is that politicians have a hammerlock on lawmaking. You don't let voters go around them and make or repeal laws by initiative and referendum.

While the initiative process has been abused in California, in Alaska it has worked reasonably well. Up there, we got a pretty good campaign-finance law thanks to a voter initiative. Just the thought of a ballot initiative scared legislators into preempting it by passing good reforms so they could take credit for something that was surely going to pass anyway.

Oh, yeah - I forgot. To make that change, Pennsylvania legislators would have to pass a constitutional amendment in two consecutive legislative sessions. Fat chance they are going to surrender their power to us peons, huh?

Well, as the years go by, I'm sure I'll get adjusted to your strange and backward political ways here in Pennsylvania. Who knows? After I retire, I might even run for prothonotary.

E-mail Matthew Zencey

at mzencey@hotmail.com.