Pa. lawmakers weigh bill that would allow independents to vote on primary candidates

A sign for a polling place is seen on the exterior of a door

Two bills currently awaiting consideration in the General Assembly would allow independent voters to choose one major party’s primary to participate in. (David Maialetti/Philadelphia Inquirer)

This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.

Former elected officials and government experts told a panel of state lawmakers that Pennsylvania’s primary system should be opened to voters who are not registered to a political party, arguing the status quo disenfranchises 1.3 million people.

Pennsylvania is one of nine states that has closed primary elections, meaning only registered Democrats and Republicans can vote for candidates from those parties and choose who will advance to the general election.

Two bills currently awaiting consideration in the General Assembly would change that by allowing independent voters to choose one major party’s primary to participate in. The bills Both bills have bipartisan support, as have similar efforts in the past.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

In 2019, the state Senate voted 42-8 to advance open primary legislation, but the bill failed to move in the state House.

During a Tuesday hearing of the House State Government Committee, supporters of changing the system pointed to the increasing number of independent voters in the state. Between 2016 and 2020, unaffiliated voters increased nearly 10% — outpacing growth in both Democratic and Republican party registrations.

People not registered with a major party aren’t completely shut out of primaries. They are able to vote on proposed constitutional amendments and other nonpartisan ballot questions during those elections. And all registered voters can pick any candidate on their ballots during the November elections.

But advocates for open primaries argue that the current restrictions disenfranchise around one-third of the electorate and amount to a modern form of taxation without representation, as Pennsylvania’s primary elections are publicly funded.

Closed primaries also effectively exclude independent voters in some parts of the state from choosing their elected officials.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

In 2020, more than one-third of the races for the Pennsylvania state House and Senate had uncontested general elections — meaning the races were effectively decided in the primary.

“If you don’t cast a ballot in the primary, nobody’s going to campaign to you. No one’s going to try to get your vote,” said John Opdycke, president of Open Primaries, a national nonprofit that opposes closed primaries. “So allowing independents to vote in the primary at least creates an opportunity.”

Advocates also contend that independents could serve as a moderating force in primary races, as candidates would need to appeal to a group outside of their base.

Some Republican state House lawmakers voiced concerns Tuesday about whether the new system would allow “party raiding,” wherein unaffiliated voters strategically use their vote to pick an unelectable candidate or one who doesn’t represent a party’s values.

However, academic research shows that the practice is not widespread, and high-profile attempts in the past to unfairly influence primary voting have not successfully swayed outcomes.

State Rep. Paul Schemel (R., Franklin) said primaries are an internal party activity and should exclude anyone who isn’t registered with the party. Without evidence, he hypothesized that independents could somehow vote in both Democratic and Republican primaries during the same election cycle.

David Thornburgh — chair of Ballot PA, a project of the good-government organization Committee of 70 — pushed back, saying that the underlying constitutional right to vote overshadows any justification to exclude independent voters.

“To my mind,” he said, “the right to vote … is more important than party preferences.”

Get the WHYY app!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal