May 26, 2022

Can anything bring some normalcy to Pa. politics? Yep.

I hesitate to suggest that sanity has a shot at emerging from what is undeniably Pennsylvania’s special moment of political crazy.

But sometimes things get so unhinged even the inmates want some calm. It’s time for our political system to metaphorically, take its meds.

First, let’s step back and see what’s what.

Keystone State politics essentially is run by modern-day versions of Keystone Kops, which is to say in zany ways plus one. The result is a scatterbrained system with a primary law excluding voters, and an election law excluding logic. Stir that into our current vortex of volatility and it’s Red Bull to the hyperactive.

So, in last week’s primaries, Republicans nominated a candidate for governor that Republican leaders didn’t want; Democrats nominated a candidate for Senate that Democratic leaders didn’t want.

Why? Both parties have proven inconsequential. Our primary law is flawed. And too many voters are too disgusted with politics to vote. Both Doug Mastriano and John Fetterman won nominations with backing by a minority of their party voters.

That’s because turnout in primaries is always less than 50 percent, usually nowhere near it. This year, of 3.4 million registered Republicans, 1.3 million voted. Of 4 million registered Democrats, 1.3 million voted.

Mastriano won with 44 percent of the 38 percent of Republicans who voted; Fetterman won with 59 percent of the 32 percent of Democrats who voted.

I’m not arguing against the outcomes. Candidates won under the system in place. Maybe it turns out well for both nominees (and Pennsylvania). Maybe not.

But primaries are enormously important to the overall electoral process. And our primary system is ignored by too many, and in need of repair.

Luckily, it’s easy: end our status as one of just nine states banning independent voters from primaries. There’s bipartisan legislation to do so. It would open democracy to more than one-million registered independents. It arguably would help smooth out extreme edges in both parties.

And as David Thornburgh, head of a statewide effort to repeal closed primaries (BallotPA), says, it would end the inequity of independents’ tax dollars paying for elections they can’t participate in: “Literally, taxation without representation.”

But it’s not the only repair needed.

The integrity of elections is a punching bag here, due in part to a galactically stupid section of election law banning counties from processing mail-in votes until Election Day. And the abject failure of the Legislature and Gov. Tom Wolf to fix it.

Instead of promoting the voting process with functional practicality, our “leaders” use the issue as a partisan bargaining chip. Wolf last year vetoed a bill extending mail-in processing because it also contained new voter ID rules. The legislature hasn’t offered an extension bill without voter ID. Given the importance of the issue, this amounts to governing malpractice.

What we’re talking about here is allowing local election officials to open mail-ins days or weeks before elections so they can be counted quicker on Election Day.

Delayed counting of mail-ins sows the seeds of distrust in outcomes. In 2020, it helped create Donald Trump’s “stolen election,” a fictional monster still being chased by angry villagers with their torches.

The GOP-run state Senate, for example, just extended a no-bid contract, with no dollar amount attached, to continue its “investigation” of the 2020 election. If you want to know what’s been found so far with $485,000 of your money, good luck.

Then there’s the nationally-watched GOP Senate primary. Mehmet Oz and David McCormick are in a virtual tie, headed for a recount, and God knows how many lawsuits over the state’s (and a federal court’s) legally-befuddled rules on mail-in votes, their envelopes, required signatures and dates.

Again, in picking a candidate for maybe the country’s most consequential Senate contest, one that could decide Senate control, just 38 percent of GOP voters cast ballots.

Clearly, something’s not right here. Primaries should be easier and fairer for all voters. Election law should be simpler and sensible.

The good news? Somebody once said “out of chaos comes order.” Some say it was Friedrich Nietzsche. Others say Mel Brooks. Either way, if it’s true, now’s a good time to start working on order.

John Baer may be reached at

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