Sunday, August 9, 2015

Pennsylvania's Taxation Without Representation

A U.S Appellate Court ruled last week that the restrictive a voter ID law adopted in Texas discriminates against minorities and violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

This comes as no surprise to those who view such laws as thinly veiled attempts to thin the ranks of potential Democratic-leaning voters.

The law was enacted in the wake of the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision "that blocked the voting act’s most potent enforcement tool, federal oversight of election laws in numerous states, including Texas, with histories of racial discrimination," the New York Times reported.

"The Texas ID law is one of the strictest of its kind in the country. It requires voters to bring a government-issued photo ID to the polls. Accepted forms of identification include a driver’s license, a United States passport, a concealed-handgun license and an election identification certificate issued by the State Department of Public Safety," according to the Times.

Only in Texas would a concealed-carry permit allow you to vote, but a library card would not.

It also serves as unfortunate notice that a state once regulated for its racism returned to it immediately once freed from the shackles of government oversight.

This ruling is good news; as was a judge's ruling suspending Pennsylvania's own version of voter ID, a law which boldly solved a problem that does not exist and, at the same time, handily discouraged minorities from voting.

Protesters in Harrisburg speak out against Pennsylvania's Voter ID Law.
Both rulings highlight what seem to be an admission by the Republican Party that with national demographics working against them -- Hispanics will be the majority within the next decade or so -- they are now forced to win elections by restricting voters rather than by winning them over with the inclusiveness of their policies.

In other words, scared of losing in a fair fight, they rig the rules.

Anyway, we're not here to talk about race. Heaven forbid.

But Pennsylvania has another long-standing voter restriction that has nothing to do with race, but is a truly insidious form of discrimination. It works against independent thinkers.

This particular voter discrimination goes largely un-remarked and, arguably has more negative impact on fair representation at the polls than the disreputable voter ID law.

Because Pennsylvania has a "closed primary" system, those who are not part of a registered party cannot vote in the spring primaries.

This is not unique in America and is the result of the argument that those not members of a party should not allowed to help choose its nominees. 

This seemingly rationale argument would be less harmful if not for the fact that most school board races in Pennsylvania get decided in those primary elctions.

This is due to another innocent-sounding rationale, that school board's are "non-partisan."

Those of us who attend school board meetings on a regular basis know this to be a load of horse hockey. 

There are often few places more partisan. The only difference is the partisanship on school boards is not always related to party, but to faction -- property tax hawks versus the "anything for the children" faction.

But as the result of something called "cross-filing," school board candidates are legally allowed to seek BOTH the Republican and Democratic lines on the spring ballot.

(Does anyone else find it fatuous that people not registered as Democrats or Republicans are not allowed to vote for a nominee, but the candidates themselves, can win the nomination, no matter what their party registration, if any?)

Yet another injustice, independent voters can't get one of these cool
stickers during the spring primary election.
Often ignored, these primary elections, which attract the smallest percentage of voters, become the place where school board candidates, who will have sway over the largest part of your tax bill, often win the election out right by taking both ballot lines.

This leaves those who, understandably, cannot stomach the shenanigans of either party, no say in their school board representation.

They are allowed to vote in November, yes; but often the only choice they have is which party line to cast their vote for the only candidates available.

This is not democratic (small "d.")

Worse, it represents the illusion of democracy, made more egregious by the fact that few positions have more power over our pocketbooks, the value of our homes and the future of our children, than that of school board.

Only the state government has the power to change this but, since no powerful school board lobby is lining their re-election pocket, it goes unaddressed.

They're too busy arguing about where we buy our booze, as if any of us cares.

There are two easy fixes. 

The state government could, like other states, change to an "open primary" system in which registered independent voters could vote in one primary or the other.

But since this could unbalance the hegemony each party has over its ballot line, don't look for a "come to Jesus" moment from any of that pack any time soon.

The easier solution, more likely because it doesn't gore any of Harrisburg's sacred cows, is to stop allowing cross-filing. 

This simple change would mean that come November, registered voters who are not registered Democrats or Republicans would more likely have a choice in who raises their school taxes.

Sadly, it does not solve the problem of too few candidates running for school boards and other local offices, although the rigged primary probably does little to encourage fledgling candidacies.

But at least it removes the structural exclusion of independents on those occasions when an actual contest might take place.

Otherwise, for independent voters, cross-filing is truly taxation without a say in representation.

And I thought we were supposed to be opposed to that here in America.


  1. As an independent voter, it doesn't bother me that I can't vote in the primary. When Jody Rhoads ran for council, I just changed my registration to Democrat, then, after the primary went back to independent. What really bothers me is that no one on the school board or boro council has any experience running a multi million dollar company. And that is what the school district and the boro are. Weather I'm a police officer or teacher, my job depends on a group of part time executives. And I disagree with the notion about voter ID. I need an Id to give blood, Pick up perscriptions for my wife at the doctor's office. If I want a picture id, don't I have to go to dmv and ask for one?

  2. Michael,
    Thanks for participating in the conversation.
    I think your analogy needs a little tweaking.
    Like a corporation has a CEO, the school district and borough have paid professionals to oversee their operation, in this case, the superintendent and borough manager, respectively.
    And like a corporation, they have a part-time board of directors that oversees them. How well that oversight is conducted is the judgment voters get to make.
    And it doesn't seem terribly Constitutional to require Independent voters to sign on to one or the other political party, just to exercise their franchise in a school board election and have a say in who levies taxes on them.
    As for Voter ID, I suspect you and I are not going t agree on that any time soon.
    Again, thanks for taking the time to comment. Have a good rest of your weekend.

  3. This is our political system. Members of the Democratic party get to pick the candidate for the elections. If you are not a member of that party, you can't vote. I think the real crux of the issue is cross filing. How can a politician file in both parties? Your point about school board elections is spot on. They are decided in the primaries, and I believe it's about cross filing. And yes, voter id is, for some reason a hot bed. I just thought that everyone had an id. Remember before photo driver's license, we couldn't wait to turn 21 and go to the local liqueur store to get our lcb card. Still have mine!

  4. Oh by the way, the boards are overseen by the boro manager and superintendent, but who picked them. Neither one is an elected position.