Why Pa. has closed primaries — and the push to change that
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HARRISBURG — When Diana Dakey registered to vote in Pennsylvania, she chose to tick the box that would leave her without a political party.
“I did not feel that I could label myself as a Republican or a Democrat,” said Dakey, an independent voter from Lackawanna County. “I can’t bring myself to be painted in a partisan lens.”
However, with that choice, Dakey knew that she would forgo the ability to vote for candidates in any primary election. Over a million other Pennsylvanians have made that same decision.
Pennsylvania is one of only nine states with a closed primary system. People who register without a party affiliation or with smaller third parties, such as the Green or the Libertarian Party, are unable to vote for Democratic or Republican candidates in the spring races that determine who runs in the general election.
Primary races can be especially important in areas where voters heavily favor one party, as they essentially decide which candidate will win the position.
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.
That’s one of the reasons why Ballot PA — a project of the Committee of Seventy, organized in partnership with civic and community organizations including Common Cause PA and the League of Women Voters — has launched a campaign to open Pennsylvania’s closed primary system.
“The primary election really is often the only election … so if you don’t get to vote in the primary, you basically don’t have a vote,” said David Thornburgh, executive director of Ballot PA and the former head of the Committee of Seventy. “It’s hard to find a better example of taxation without representation.”
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Dakey has been sharing her story as part of Ballot PA’s campaign to persuade lawmakers to vote for a pending bill that would allow independents to vote for either Democratic or Republican candidates in the primary.
“I’m not able to vote in the primary, but I am fully engaged with other independent voters who are all asking for the right to vote in the primary because that’s the right thing to do to change the flavor of partisan politics in Pennsylvania,” she said.
Each state organizes its primary in its own way. Some allow independent voters as well as third-party registrants to cast a ballot in the major party primaries, while other states do not. Some states even change this rule on a yearly basis.
A closed primary like Pennsylvania’s is the most restrictive combination.
Pennsylvania’s system was enshrined in its 1937 Election Code. It was intended as a remedy to a developing issue. At that time, many new and short-lived political parties — also known as mushroom parties — would spring up before elections, crowding the ballot and confusing voters.
In an article titled “Mushroom Parties Banned Under New Election Law,” The Evening Herald of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, wrote that the law was intended to limit the practice of “split[ing] one party to the advantage of another.”
But what was once a solution to a procedural electoral problem has become a system that excludes a significant portion of the electorate.
In addition to being in line with democratic principles, Thornburgh said, opening the primary system would mitigate the increasing polarization in Pennsylvania politics.
Studies have shown that polarization is rising in state legislatures across the country, in part due to primaries. A recent Stanford University study found that “more-extreme candidates” do better in contested primaries — races that have multiple candidates.
That same study found that nearly 80% of statehouse elections across the country are determined by the primary. In part due to self-sorting, most legislative districts are small enough that they have a politically cohesive partisan presence.
According to Dave’s Redistricting, a nonpartisan political map analysis website, only 36 of Pennsylvania’s 203 newly redrawn legislative district seats are “competitive.” The site categorizes a district as competitive if there is a partisan split between 45% and 55% between the two major parties.
“It shouldn’t be a surprise that the people who get elected in those elections are themselves, in fact, representing the extremes of both parties,” said Thornburgh. “To my mind, allowing 1.1 million less-partisan voters to participate in those elections broadens the base, increases competition for votes, and forces candidates to speak to a broader cross section of the electorate.”
Currently, a bill meant to do just that is making its way through the state Senate. SB 690 would allow unaffiliated voters to support a candidate in the Democratic or Republican primary. The current iteration of the bill is co-sponsored by state Sens. Dan Laughlin, R-Erie, and Maria Collett, D-Bucks, and is currently awaiting consideration in the State Government Committee.
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. State Sen. Dave Argall, R-Schuylkill, this session’s chair of the State Government Committee, voted for the previous iteration of the bill.
He told Spotlight PA that he still approves of the legislation but wants to learn more about the potential effects of the bill and the opinions of his committee members before bringing it up for a vote.
“Some states may allow Republicans to vote in the Democratic [primary], Democrats to vote in the Republican primary. That kind of free-for-all can lead to mischief,” Argall said. “And so, you know, the devil is always going to be in the details.”
Argall is referring to crossover voting, which allows voters who are registered with one major party to vote in another’s primary. The bill pending in Pennsylvania would not allow that.
Jenn Bullock, director of Independent Pennsylvanians — an organization that advocates for expanding voting rights for unaffiliated Pennsylvanians — said fears about some voters spoiling elections does not justify disenfranchising more than a million people.
“Independents don’t care about being so hyper partisan … it’s like a bad soap opera,” Bullock said. “Pennsylvania’s really entrenched in these sixth-grader level arguments that are outdated and not based on the reality — which is nonaffiliated voters are the fastest-growing track in Pennsylvania and a huge segment of the voting population across the country.”
Bullock said the bill should go further and allow third-party voters to participate in primaries as well. During a State Government Committee hearing, state Sen. Katie Muth, D-Berks, suggested an amendment that would do just that. Laughlin indicated he was open to the idea.
The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania — which represents the officials who run elections — has voiced some concerns regarding the logistical issues the bill might spawn, such as creating multiple new ballots for unaffiliated voters. Ultimately, any decision must be made with enough time for county election directors to prepare, the association said.
Bullock said this bill should only be a stepping stone on the path to expanding the electorate. She argued that in a truly democratic system, voters would be able to vote freely to choose candidates, independent of party registration.
“The ideal is that voting rights are not connected to … your party registration at all across the board. So the bill now is … a little bit low-hanging fruit,” Bullock said. “It’s one step towards unlocking voting rights and election participation from the two private parties.”
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