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Steelers star and other veterans highlighting impact of closed primaries on those who served

By: - August 26, 2022 3:48 pm

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An effort by the Committee of Seventy to pass legislation that would open Pennsylvania’s primary elections to all registered voters is enlisting prominent veterans to highlight the disproportionate impact of closed primaries on former service members. 

About half of Pennsylvania’s 800,000 veterans are registered independents and the Keystone State is one of nine that do not allow third-party voters to participate in primary elections, according to Ballot PA, a coalition of civic, community, and business organizations committed to open elections and good government.

A project of the nonprofit nonpartisan good government group Committee of Seventy, Ballot PA announced this week it is launching “Ballot PA Veterans to Repeal Closed Primaries” to educate the public about the need to open primary elections to veterans who are independent and third-party voters. 

Former Pittsburgh Steelers halfback and Vietnam War veteran Rocky Bleier and retired Brigadier General Wilbur E. Wolf III will lead the effort, the group said.

Two bills that would end closed partisan primaries have been introduced in the General Assembly. 

House Bill 1369 was the subject of a House State Government Committee hearing last week at Villanova University. Rep. Chris Quinn, R-Delaware, is the bill’s prime sponsor.

Lawmakers heard testimony from veterans including former state Auditor General Jack Wagner, who served in the U.S. Marines during the Vietnam war, and Marilyn Kelly-Cavotta, a U.S. Army veteran and director of veteran and military services at Moravian University in Bethlehem. Both are among the co-chairs of the project.

Kelly-Cavotta told the committee that before every primary she finds herself explaining that independents cannot participate. It’s especially difficult for veterans who have made sacrifices for their country.

“You must follow the orders of the Commander-in-Chief, but you cannot select the one that you want to see on the ballot,” Kelly-Cavotta said.

Also pending is Senate Bill 690, which, like the legislation in the House, would allow independent registered voters to choose to cast their vote on either the Republican or Democratic ballot in a primary election. Sen. Daniel Laughlin, R-Erie, is the bill’s prime sponsor.

Bleier was drafted into the Army a year after he started his career with the Steelers. Wounded in combat in Vietnam, Bleier returned to the United States where he was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star and began rehabilitation that would allow him to return to professional football.

The Vietnam War made clear the injustice that 18-year-olds fighting for their country were not permitted to vote and led to the rapid ratification of the 26th Amendment.

“How can we explain to a young man or woman returning home from a deployment that they have no voice in a primary election? It’s wrong – and downright un-American,” Bleier said. 

Wolf served in the Army and Army National Guard for more than 30 years retiring as the director of joint staff for the Pennsylvania National Guard and deputy commanding general of the U.S. Army Intelligence Center at Ft. Huachuca, Arizona.

Also named as co-chairs of the mission are former Cumberland County Commissioner Barbara Cross, who served as an officer in the Marines, and Patrick Murphy, who was the first Iraq War veteran elected to Congress and served as an under secretary of the Army.

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Peter Hall
Peter Hall

Peter Hall has been a journalist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for more than 20 years, most recently covering criminal justice and legal affairs for The Morning Call in Allentown. His career at local newspapers and legal business publications has taken him from school board meetings to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and many points of interest between. He earned a degree in journalism from Susquehanna University.