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Election outsiders, debate recap, and bail bloat

Plus, highlights from our second U.S. Senate debate.

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A daily newsletter by Spotlight PA

Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
April 27, 2022
Primary pinch, Republican recap, big bail, Trump rally, DA jailed, and lawmakers put on their dancing shoes. It's Wednesday.
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There are 1.3 million voters in Pennsylvania who aren't affiliated with either of the two major parties and who can't vote in primaries for key positions like governor and U.S. senator as a result.

That's because Pennsylvania is one of only nine states with a closed primary system that allows only registered Democrats and Republicans to cast ballots in the spring races that determine who runs in November.

But Spotlight PA reports there's an effort underway to change that. Ballot PA — a coalition of civic and community organizations including Common Cause PA, the League of Women Voters, and the Committee of Seventy — has launched a campaign to open up Pennsylvania's primaries.

Local primaries are especially important in areas where voters heavily favor one party, because they essentially decide the final outcome. 

David Thornburgh, executive director of Ballot PA and the former head of the Committee of Seventy, likened it to "taxation without representation."

THE CONTEXT: Pennsylvania's primary system was enshrined in 1937 and was intended to remedy a growing issue at the time: new and short-lived political parties — also known as mushroom parties — sprouting up before elections, crowding the ballot, and confusing voters. 

Eighty-five years later, that remedy for an electoral problem has become a system that excludes a significant portion of the electorate: Nearly 1.3 million of the state's 8.7 million registered voters are unaffiliated with the two major parties, a number that rose by nearly 10% between 2016 and 2020 — outpacing gains made by Democrats and Republicans. 

There is a bill making its way through the state Senate that would allow those voters to support a candidate in the Democratic or Republican primary. (They can only vote on ballot questions during primaries now.)

A previous version of the same bill passed the state Senate in 2019, in a 42-8 vote, but was never brought up for a vote in the state House.

Beyond enfranchising sidelined voters, an open primary system would also mitigate polarization in state politics, supporters say.

A Stanford University study found "more-extreme candidates" do better in contested primaries — those with multiple candidates — and that nearly 80% of statehouse elections in the U.S. are decided by primary voters.

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"It's called 'hyperbole' to keep myself marketable."

Embattled York County Prison contractor Joseph Garcia admitting in 2020 that he lied about his resume; Garcia's training of guards was tied to abuses of imprisoned people in York and has drawn a class-action lawsuit
» Your guide to the Democratic and GOP candidates for governor

» 5 takeaways from Spotlight PA's Republican gubernatorial debate

» A guide to the overlooked race for Pa. lieutenant governor

» Big donations to GOP guv hopefuls: Who gave and how much?

» Tell Spotlight PA what election coverage matters the most to you

Support Spotlight PA's public-service election and voting coverage now.
» PRIMARY PRIMER: Join us Thursday, May 5 at 6 p.m. via Zoom for a free Q&A on Pennsylvania's candidates for governor, how they plan to lead, and how to spot misinformation. Register for the event here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org
A tortoise enjoying an apple in Elizabethtown, courtesy of Chris M. Send us your gems, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag @spotlightpennsylvania.
DEBATE CLUB: Five of the candidates running in the Republican primary for Pennsylvania's open U.S. Senate seat gathered for a debate hosted by Spotlight PA and its founding members at Dickinson College on Tuesday. Kathy Barnette, Jeff Bartos, Carla Sands, George Bochetto, and Sean Gale were on hand. Frontrunners Mehmet Oz and David McCormick were not. Here are the highlights, via TribLIVE. 

HOME RULE: New nursing home regulations proposed by Pennsylvania's Department of Health are the "most complete revision" of the rulebook in decades, The Inquirer reports. The update, while far from settled, would deliver tougher vetting of potential nursing home owners amid concerns about the industry's for-profit shift, among other safeguards. But some advocates warn it isn't enough.

BAIL FIGHT: Pennsylvania's ACLU is suing Lancaster County and four local judges on behalf of incarcerated people who can't afford bail, LNP reports. The lawsuit says the judges are setting bail — which isn't meant to be punitive but rather to ensure people return for court — so high that it's leading to the unconstitutional pretrial incarceration of hundreds of people a year. The ACLU says the problem is statewide.

OZ SHOW: Former President Donald Trump will hold a rally in Greensburg on May 6 for Mehmet Oz, his chosen candidate in the GOP race to be Pennsylvania's next U.S. Senator. In a debate on Monday, Oz said he's discussed the 2020 election with Trump, adding, "we cannot move on." The AP reports Trump's endorsement of Oz has prompted backlash and a flurry of campaign contributions.

NEW CHARGES: Suspended Somerset County prosecutor Jeffrey Thomas was jailed in Cambria County on Monday. State police say he was seen on a FaceTime call punching his wife as the two rode in a vehicle in May of 2021, the Daily American reports. Thomas is headed to trial in an unrelated sexual assault case that saw his law license temporarily suspended by Pennsylvania's Supreme Court last year.

MOVIN' ON: Penn State's student-run music festival, Movin' On, is back with a full in-person lineup for the first time in three years this Friday. Headliner Jack Harlow will be joined by Aminé, and Fitz and The Tantrums.

ON TAP: State Reps. Joe Ciresi (D., Montgomery) and R. Lee James (R., Venango) tap-danced inside the Capitol to drum up support for a bill that would make dance teacher certifications easier to come by. WITF's Sam Dunklau grabbed a video and said: "It's fun around here sometimes."

POP OFF: State Rep. Matthew Dowling (R., Fayette) wants to ban anyone older than 13 from intentionally releasing a balloon into the atmosphere, part of a push to ban mass balloon releases altogether. The case for such a ban was arguably made by Cleveland almost 36 years ago.

TRASH TIL: Pennsylvania has so many landfills that its trash-per-person ratio (35.4 tons per denizen in 2016) is higher than almost every other state. TikTok-er @thebigfavorite's reaction was similar to mine.

COAT CHECK: A cold front is moving in, and that means highs in the 50s across Pennsylvania today after highs in the 80s just a few days ago. Freeze watches and frost advisories were in effect this morning. 

Unscramble and send your answer to scrambler@spotlightpa.org. We'll shout out winners here, and one each week will get some Spotlight PA swag.

*This week's theme: The five senses
Yesterday's answer: Perceptible

Congrats to our daily winners: Don H., Craig W., Becky C., Bonnie R., Patricia M., Michelle T., Susan D., Suzanne O., Bette G., Elaine C., Deb N., Vicki M., Pat B., Steve D., Kimberly S., George S., James B., Bill S., Vicki U., Susan N.-Z., Jim A., Nancy S., Dianne K., Andrea S., Jude M., and David W.
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