Did you know that it costs Pennsylvanians approximately $20 million each spring to conduct primary elections?
Well, at least all PA residents pay their fair share if they choose to participate, right?
The Keystone State is one of nine states in the country – Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, New York and Oregon – with completely closed primaries. A closed primary means that only members of a political party can vote in the primary.
As the number of people who leave or choose never to join a political party continues to increase, the pressure is mounting on lawmakers to reform the Election Code to let independent voters participate in primary elections.
“There are 1.1 million voters like that in Pennsylvania. It’s the fastest growing part of the electorate in the Commonwealth. And they’re shut out of primary elections,” said David Thornburgh, former president and CEO of The Committee of Seventy, at a press conference called by Ballot PA, a new campaign aimed at opening the primaries. “They’re denied their right to vote in every election, even though as taxpayers, they helped help fund those same elections. So simply put, it is not fair.”
That fastest growing portion of the electorate totals approximately 13 percent or one in seven of all Keystone State voters.
“Pennsylvania could decide control of the U.S. Senate or the U.S. House of Representatives,” wrote former state senators Gib Armstrong and Mike Brubaker in a LNP op-ed. “A gubernatorial primary winner will become the leader of the 18th largest economy in the world. Republicans and Democrats will be able to weigh in on some of the most important elections in the country, but unaffiliated voters and independents will be shut out.”
State senator Dan Laughlin (R-Erie) introduced legislation that would change the way Pennsylvania conducts its primary elections.
“Senate Bill 690 would give the nearly 1.3 million registered unaffiliated voters in Pennsylvania the right to participate in the primary election process. Specifically, on the day of the primary election, it will allow these voters to choose to cast their vote on either the Republican or Democrat ballot,” he said. “Voters who are registered Republican or Democrat will continue to be required to vote on their respective ballots.”
Nine states currently hold primaries that are open to unaffiliated voters in this manner – Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island and West Virginia.
SB 690 was referred to the State Government Committee, headed by Sen. David Argall (R-Berks/Schuylkill), last May but has yet to be acted upon. The Senate also approved an open primaries bill in 2019, but the measure died in the state House without getting a committee vote.
“We should have full voting rights across the board at every election,” said Jennifer Bullock, who is coordinator of PA Independents. “We are more likely, I know I am, more likely to look at a candidate for what they stand for vs. what their party is.”
“I prefer the closed primaries,” said Joe Vichot, the head of the Lehigh County Republican Committee. He says despite the rise of independents, it’s still the party’s role to elect one of its own for the general election. “Sometimes you really have to take that responsibility if you want that voice to really come and join,” he said.
Armstrong and Brubaker wrote, “As former elected officials, we understand the importance of participation and representation. We strove to carry the voices of all of our constituents, but the systematic failures of Pennsylvania’s electoral system make it impossible for independent and unaffiliated voters to participate fully.”
Alan Novak, a former chairman of the state Republican Party, and T.J. Rooney, a former head of the state Democratic Party, joined Thornburgh at the Tuesday press conference in support of the Ballot PA push to open the primaries.
Novak said that by inviting independent voters to participate in the primaries it would make candidates begin talking about issues that interest all voters sooner in the process.
Rooney said it’s inevitable that the state will have to address this issue.
“This is going to happen. And when you deal with inevitabilities, you want to be on the front end of that,” Rooney said.
“Pennsylvania is still a very, very purple state. And in anything that we can do as a party to grow ourselves and to grow our message and to grow the values of what Democrats stand for, I think is a good thing,” Rooney said.