EDITORIAL: Open Pa.'s primaries to unaffiliated voters

Patrick DeLany
York Dispatch
FILE - In this July 14, 2018, file photo, computer mouse pads with Secure the Vote logo on them are seen on a vendor's table at a convention of state secretaries of state in Philadelphia. As alarms blare about Russian interference in U.S. elections, the Trump administration is facing criticism that it has no clear national strategy to protect the country during the upcoming midterms and beyond. Both Republicans and Democrats have criticized the administration’s response as fragmented, without enough coordination across federal agencies. (AP Photo/Mel Evans, File)

What’s this?

Pennsylvania lawmakers acknowledging a potential weakness in the state’s voting laws and moving to do something about it?

On a bipartisan basis, no less?

It’s true, it’s legitimate and it’s welcome.

The issue is closed primaries — the system that allows only voters registered with a party to vote in that party’s primary elections. With Pennsylvania — like many other states — seeing more and more voters registering as unaffiliated, those voters are basically disenfranchised from primary elections.

The state Senate’s top Republican, Joe Scarnati of the north-central 25th District, has proposed a bill that would allow unaffiliated voters to choose which party primary to vote in.

Among its supporters: State Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, who chairs the Senate State Government Committee currently weighing the bill; bill co-sponsor and Democratic Senate minority leader Jay Costa of the Pittsburgh-area 43rd District; Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf; and good-government groups like Common Cause.

All recognize the reality that as enrollment trends continue to change, voting laws will need to be revised to keep up.

More:Pressure grows to scrap closed primaries in Pennsylvania

More:Some lawmakers want to open Pennsylvania primaries to independent voters

More than 40 percent of Americans, including half of all millennials, identify themselves as politically independent.

In Pennsylvania, more than 785,000 of the state’s roughly 8.5 million registered voters are unaffiliated, according to the state Board of Voting & Elections Statistics. That number may be relatively small, but it’s on the rise — up some 75 percent since 2012.

And in a state like Pennsylvania, where political districts were long carved out to favor one party over the other, it’s not unheard of for a contested primary to be more consequential than a general election.

Scarnati, for one, believes opening the primary process will boost turnout — although critics say that’s not always the case.

According to an Associated Press report: “Many independent voters don’t pay close attention to politics and are among the least likely to vote, researchers say. Meanwhile, independent voters are not necessarily moderate, and are just as likely to have party-aligned ideologies as party-registered voters, researchers say.”

To take those researchers’ arguments one at a time, political ambivalence might very well be fueled by the lack of opportunity to participate in primaries. And why shouldn’t independent voters whose views align closely with one party or another weigh in during primaries? That’s exactly when they can have a say on whom they believe best represents their views. (Not to mention, if they’re taxpayers, they’re helping to pay for the primaries they are effectively barred for taking part in.)

Finally, open primaries could dilute the partisan one-sidedness in primaries that has contributed to the political calcification of Washington. Opening primary voting would often force rabid partisans to do more than play to their base, opening the door for more centrist candidates.

There are already 20 states in which all political parties conduct open primaries for state-level and congressional offices, in addition to states like California and Washington, where so-called top-two primaries are de facto open, as they are not tied to any political party.

The sky has fallen in none of these states, which include Texas, Colorado and Virginia.

Open primaries are a bipartisan win there for the taking in Harrisburg. Now that the state’s wretchedly unfair congressional districts have been redrawn, the state’s power players should take the next obvious step in ensuring that every voter has a voice in Pennsylvania at every step in the electoral process by opening state primaries.