By Joe Ferraro
Montgomery County officials say they are coming up $750,000 short in last year's budget, and they are looking for cuts. I have a suggestion that could save about $300,000, maybe more.
Pennsylvania has a closed primary system, meaning that only Democrats and Republicans may participate in the primary election. The turnouts are abysmal. Many times, less than 25 percent of the population shows up at the polls. Hence the savings:
Plan No. 1: Only open 25 percent of the polling places for the primaries. With salaries, rent, and time, it costs about $1,000 in county taxes to operate a polling place. Montgomery County has more than 400 of them. So, on primary election days, opening 100 of them should save $300,000. Yes, there would be some extra start-up costs to let people know where to vote for the primary the first time this system is used. After that, though, people will know where to vote.
Plan No. 2: Charge the political parties for the use of county resources to run their elections. If only Democrats and Republicans have access to the primary system, why should everyone have to foot the bill for their selection process? Once the polls close on primary Election Day, have voter services total up the cost to the county, divide that number by two, and hand a bill to each political party.
Plan No. 3: Go to an open primary system. That means anyone, including independents, can vote for anyone they want in the primary, regardless of a candidate's party. This idea may not save money, but it would make the system fairer. And, if adopted, it would likely negate Plans Nos. 1 and 2. The county couldn't close polling places because there would likely be more voters, and the political parties couldn't be charged for their exclusive primary election process.
Adopting an open primary system would require a change in state law. And I am not optimistic that anyone in Harrisburg is interested in doing anything for the disenfranchised. Perhaps the only way open primaries would happen is if some sharp lawyer dragged the commonwealth into court with an equal protection argument.
It is a shame that neither political party sees the large numbers of people who have left the two-party system as a base of opportunity. Welcoming these folks back into the process would likely generate more palatable candidates, perhaps leaving voters in general elections with fewer extreme choices to grumble about.
But, as it stands now, taxpayers are being gouged for an unfair system. Either let everyone vote in primaries, or figure out a way that doesn't gouge us as badly.