Pa. state senators introduce open primary bill | Monday Morning Coffee

Monday is the deadline to register to vote in the May 16 primary — but only if you’re registered with one of the Big Two parties

By: - May 1, 2023 7:15 am
A voting sign in Philadelphia

A voting sign in Philadelphia. (Capital-Star photo by Michala Butler)

In just about two weeks’ time, registered Democrats and Republicans across the commonwealth will cast their ballots in marquee primary contests in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, as well as the statewide judiciary, and a host of local races.

But what about Pennsylvania’s roughly 1.2 million unaffiliated and third-party voters who make up about 14.5% of the state’s electorate?

Well, just like the Boston Bruins, who got knocked out of the NHL playoffs on Sunday night, they’ll be watching the results from home.

That’s because Pennsylvania’s primary election system is a closed shop: Only registered Democrats and Republicans can vote in races that affect the lives of every Pennsylvanian.

But if a bipartisan pair of state senators have their way, that could change.

Last week, state Sens. Dan Laughlin, R-Erie, and Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton, formally introduced legislation that would allow unaffiliated voters to participate in the taxpayer-funded elections. The measure is now before the Senate’s State Government Committee.

“Look outside of Pennsylvania and you will see that most states have open primaries, and it hasn’t created chaos. In fact, it empowers more voters and will likely increase voter participation. That’s a good thing,” Boscola said in a statement.

The ranks of such voters also are growing, the lawmakers said, citing data compiled by the Department of State showing that the number of unaffiliated voters rose by 51,816 voters between 2015 and 2021.

(Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Right now, Pennsylvania is one of only nine states that bar independent voters from participating in primary elections, the two lawmakers said, citing data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The other states with closed primaries include FloridaKentuckyNevadaOregon, and New Mexico, as well as Pennsylvania’s neighboring states of DelawareMaryland, and New York, according to NCSL.

The bill isn’t “some grand scheme to skew primary election results to affect the fall general election outcome,” Laughlin said in the joint statement.

Rather “this is simply about engaging the voters and letting them vote. For us to prevent them from doing that, thereby ignoring their opinions and voices, is just wrong. Addressing that wrong is one of the most important things that can be done as a lawmaker,” he said.

Voting rights and good government advocate David Thornburgh address the Pennsylvania Press Club’s monthly luncheon on Monday, 5/23/22 (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

Election reform advocates have long argued for opening up the state’s closed primary system, saying they increase participation and also drive up membership in the Big Two parties.

About a third of independent voters lean Democrat, another third lean Republican, and the hold-outs are “I’ll let you know when I get there” voters, David Thornburgh, of BallotPA, an organization dedicated to making the change, said during an appearance before the Pennsylvania Press Club last spring.

Opening the intra-party contests would provide a “try-before-you-buy” option to those voters, who might then decide to join one of the Big Two parties, he added.

Keeping unaffiliated voters out of the polls on primary day is undemocratic because the tax dollars of independent voters help cover the cost of the intra-party canvasses, even though they’re not allowed to participate in them, he argued.

“It is literally taxation without representation,” Thornburgh, the son of the late Gov. Richard Thornburgh, said, comparing the primaries to job interviews, where the interviewing committee needs to be as large and as diverse as possible.

The primary election is May 16. Today is the last day to register to vote if you want to participate. The Capital-Star has you covered on everything you need to know to register and to cast your ballot.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.