Those expecting some knock-down, drag-out political infighting this primary election season may be sorely disappointed.

Reports from early candidates nights and "debates" indicate there are plenty of candidates, but little debate.

"They all say pretty much the same thing" is the quote I hear most often from those who attend the candidate confabulations. The politicians, it seems, are saving most of the politics for November, when they won't be facing fellow party members.

I know that political campaigns, especially during primaries, are based more on party status, personality and perceived competence than on political ideals and promises. Candidates do not often help themselves by going against their party's grain.

But are party platforms so ingrained and inviolate that primary elections boil down to little more than internal popularity contests? That question reminded me why I have issues with this state's primary elections.

You see, as a nonaffiliated voter in Pennsylvania, I will not be voting on May 18. I can't. I'm too "nonaffiliated" to qualify for a ballot. In a closed-primary state like Pennsylvania, no party means no vote. I can merely observe and comment — much like I'm doing now.

During my eight-year tenure in the Buckeye State, I could vote in primaries. Not only did Ohioans have a lot more ballot issues that everyone could vote on, they also had a lot more elections: Sometimes four a year if schools were having a hard time selling tax increases (which they often were.)

Ohio also is an "open-primary" state, meaning I could walk up to the polling place and ask for any party's ballot and get one. My affiliation was not determined by a line on my registration card, but on whichever ballot I picked up in the preceding primary.

I liked the idea that the process was more open, even though I never took advantage of the ability to play games with the "two-party system." But there were concerns that games were being played. Every election, I would hear complaints that a weaker candidate did well, or even won, a primary because the other party's partisans crossed over to rig the outcome in favor of their guy or gal in the general election.

Going conventional

Pennsylvania created its current primary system as a way to open the electoral process.

The system is more open than it was in the era of big political machines, but I do not think it has yet reached "more perfect" status. It has ingrained the nation's two-party predilection into a two-party system that makes it hard for other voices to be heard. It also tends to reward rote partisanship over innovation and problem solving.

At the risk of sounding too European, I would like to see the state's primary election actually become a preliminary election, where the widest field of candidates is narrowed to a few, regardless of party affiliation.

Of course, changing the system likely would take another constitutional convention, which many people call for, but few actually want to contemplate: There are too many cans of worms such a reinvention of government could open.

My father attended the 1967-68 Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention as a staff member and research assistant. He used that experience to write his doctoral dissertation.

I would like to say his document makes for scintillating reading, but, as a whole, it does not. His focus was on judicial reform and a statistical analysis of delegates' voting patterns. Like I said, not scintillating.

But I am interested in one of the themes of his tome: The attempts to make the convention "bipartisan." Apparently, vested interests were so scared of what other vested interests could concoct at a constitutional convention, they made sure to limit the power that parties and lobbyists had over the delegates. Seating, for example, was alphabetical, rather than by party caucus. There were no party leaders on the floor of the convention.

His interesting (but nonscintillating) statistical analysis ended up concluding that partisanship still was a factor in the way most delegates voted most of the time, as was home address.

But more interesting to me is that the partisans of 40 years ago, when they really wanted to get something done, tried, at least, to leave the partisanship at home.

n Craig Urey is a veteran freelance journalist who lives in Selinsgrove. For comments, critiques or suggestions, e-mail him at curey@dailyitem.com. For those who find nonscintillating statistical analyses of constitutional conventions interesting, see the late Dr. Gene Urey's "Judicial Reform in the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention of 1967-1968." Very dusty copies are likely to be found deep within the libraries of Syracuse and Susquehanna universities.

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