Saturday May 19, 2018
We are well past the point of being surprised at low turnout for primary elections in years when the presidency isn't up for grabs, but that doesn't stop us from feeling disappointed.
If there were ever a year when there should have been plenty of interest in the spring campaign, it was this one. Voters throughout Berks County had the rare opportunity to nominate someone new for Congress, and Republican voters had to make a choice in a hotly contested gubernatorial race. Most local voters could have voted in at least one significant contested race. Yet only 18 percent of registered Democrats and Republicans - fewer than one in five eligible primary voters - bothered to come out.
County election officials said the turnout was a bit better than they expected, and that stormy weather might have discouraged some people from voting, but we remain troubled at the level of disinterest.
With so much attention focused on control of Congress this November, wouldn't members of the two major parties want to have a say in who is running? Did voters know enough about the new congressional districts and candidates? Did the barrage of negative ads in the Republican race for governor turn voters off?
Whatever the reasons, the situation is unfortunate.
Perhaps most disappointing is that local voters passed up the opportunity to let the candidates in their new districts know that Berks residents are politically engaged and demand strong representation despite maps drawn to our disadvantage.
It's particularly troublesome in the 9th District. When the state Supreme Court issued its new maps in February, we warned that much of Berks could well wind up being represented by someone from the far northern reaches of that vast district. That's exactly what happened. Nominees Denny Wolff and Dan Meuser both live about 100 miles away from Reading's eastern suburbs in the district, and neither was the top choice of Berks voters in their party. They're saying the right things to reassure voters in our area, but that matters little. We want to see them here regularly, and we expect them to display some knowledge of this area and the issues we're facing here.
Some argue that one way to get more people involved in the process and make it fairer would be to open up primaries to independent voters. We think it's well worth pursuing. State Rep. Dave Reed, an Indiana County Republican and House majority leader, is working on a bill that would allow Pennsylvania's 1.2 million independent voters to participate in primaries.
Candidates for school board and county judge can seek the nominations of both major parties. If they succeed under the current system, independent voters are given practically no say in who wins. And Reed acknowledged that inviting voters from outside the parties into the process would improve the chances of moderate candidates who often struggle to win over the partisans who come out in force for primary elections.
It's time to start having serious discussions about this idea. Independent-minded voters should not have to feel obligated to tie themselves to a party just to have a voice in determining the November ballot.
And if that effort succeeds, we expect to see plenty of those independents out voting each spring and making their voices heard. There's no doubt we need more people taking advantage of that opportunity.
Berks County has disappointing day at polls