Nearly 20 Swarthmore students traveled to the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg over fall break to advocate for nonpartisan election reform through a rally and meetings with state representatives.
Harry Hou ’25, Danika Grieser ’26, and Haverford student Andrew Cadwallader ’26 organized the rally with State Representative Jared Solomon ’01 as part of the Students for Ballot PA nonpartisan initiative to repeal closed primaries in Pennsylvania.
Hou and Grieser earned grant support from the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility last spring for their Debating 4 Democracy (D4D) letter, which was adapted and published in the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. The letter, addressed to Rep. Solomon, highlighted the importance of independent voters gaining a voice in primary elections.
Rep. Solomon, an attorney who has represented Philadelphia County since 2017 and served in the Army Judge Advocate General's (JAG) Corps, contacted the Swarthmore students to arrange a meeting in Philadelphia. There, they set the groundwork for a rally in Harrisburg.
“We had originally planned to take a few students to Harrisburg to meet with legislators,” Grieser says, “but we ended up with more than 50 students from across the state.”
Hou, Grieser, Cadwallader, and fellow co-chairs of Students for Ballot PA organized the rally through the Committee of Seventy, a nonprofit that advocates for effective government in Philadelphia. The students expressed support for two bills (one from Rep. Solomon and another from his colleague from across the aisle, State Representative Marla Brown) to help put an end to closed primaries.
Pennsylvania is one of just seven states where only members of political parties can participate in primary elections, and 90% of the state’s elections have been determined during the primary vote in recent years, according to Students for Ballot PA.
"I believe that every voter has a right to participate fully in elections,” said Rep. Solomon. “But in Pennsylvania, independent voters have zero say in our primaries. My legislation for open primaries would give a voice to 1.2 million Pennsylvanians whose taxpayer dollars pay for primary elections in which they cannot vote.
"When we ensure that every eligible voter has a voice,” he adds, “we are increasing turnout, widening our democracy, and bringing in new ideas."
Rep. Solomon invited the students to the state House floor as his guests. One group of students was recognized by Speaker Rep. Joanna McClinton at the start of the House session, while another went to the state Senate and was introduced by State Senator Lisa Boscola (whose remarks can be viewed here).
Hou then gave a speech before Rep. Solomon and other members of the House, spotlighting the convergence of students with diverse interests coming together to rally for election reform.
“We hail from Pittsburgh to Carlisle to Philadelphia, with interests ranging from international relations to child education to pre-medical studies,” Hou said. “But whether you are Joshua, a budding mechanical engineer, or Danika, the daughter of two Army JAG Corp Veterans, or Tommy, a D1 track athlete, what brings us together is this keystone issue: to participate without being pinned to single political persuasions.”
The students’ efforts ramped up at the start of the school year, following their meeting with Rep. Solomon. Planning accelerated in the lead-up to the rally, with Hou and Grieser working tirelessly to develop legislative engagement plans and outline hour-by-hour logistics.
“Nonpartisan election reform typically does not receive much attention in our public discourse, let alone from college students,” says Hou. “I was impressed by the interest held by so many Pennsylvania college students.”
That interest may have paid off: The day after the rally, on October 17, the State Government Committee voted in favor of the bipartisan legislation from representatives Solomon and Brown.
“While there is still a long way to go for the bills to make their way to the governor's desk,” says Grieser, “this is a huge step forward.”
On Thursday, Nov. 16, at 3 p.m. EST, there will be a Zoom webinar, Young Voters Stand Up for Open Primaries, featuring a few of the Students for Ballot PA co-chairs. The event is open to all.