Five former Pa. governors want to allow independents to vote in partisan primaries

The former governors want to open Pennsylvania's closed primary system by allowing unaffiliated voters to pick partisan candidates.

A sign showing people where they should cast their ballots for an election.

A sign showing people where they should cast their ballots for an election. (

This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.

Pennsylvania’s five most recent former governors have collectively announced their support for open primaries, adding new fuel to a long-smoldering debate over whether the commonwealth should allow unaffiliated voters to help choose partisan candidates.

In a letter published Monday, Govs. Tom Corbett, Ed Rendell, Tom Ridge, Mark Schweiker, and Tom Wolf wrote that they, “pledged to govern on behalf of all Pennsylvanians,” and argued that primary elections are now decided by fewer, more extreme voters. The letter goes on to assert that opening primaries would help tamp down extremism and polarization.

Pennsylvania is one of nine states with a closed primary system. Voters in the state can cast primary election ballots only for the party to which they are registered, which crucially leaves the commonwealth’s roughly one million independent or unaffiliated voters unable to participate in major party primaries at all. An additional 300,000 voters registered with third parties are also affected.

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Independent and third-party voters are still able to participate in statewide referenda, other local ballot initiatives, and special elections that coincide with partisan primary elections.

“By inviting independent voters into party primary elections, it’s giving them a chance to ‘try before you buy,’” the governors said. “Both political parties have seen dramatic declines over the past 20 years, while independent voters are the fastest growing segment of the voting population. Why wouldn’t we want to invite them in?”

The movement to open Pennsylvania’s primaries has been in the works for nearly two decades. Good-government advocates and lawmakers in both parties and chambers have repeatedly championed various versions of bills to allow cross-party and no-party participation.

Some of these attempts to change the primary system have come close to passing, but none have made it to a governor’s desk. Most recently, an open primaries bill sponsored by former state Sen. Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson), who served as president pro tempore, passed the upper chamber 42 to 8 in 2019.

For the past five years, the good-government group Committee of Seventy has devoted particular effort to this issue. David Thornburgh — the son of late Republican Gov. Dick Thornburgh — chairs the group’s initiative Ballot PA, which supports open primaries and published the governors’ joint letter Monday.

In an interview with Spotlight PA, Thornburgh described opening primaries as “the right thing to do and the smart thing to do,” and argued that having independent voters pay for primaries while being unable to participate is a form of taxation without representation.

He added that many independents are veterans.

“We have hundreds of thousands of veterans in this commonwealth who are political independents, and the idea that you could prohibit men and women who fought for this country from voting for their own commander in chief is unconscionable,” Thornburgh said.

This legislative session, there are measures in both the state House and Senate that would open the primary system.

In the GOP-controlled state Senate, Sens. Dan Laughlin (R., Erie) and Lisa Boscola (D., Lehigh) have sponsored a bill that would allow independents to vote in either the Democratic or Republican primary. Laughlin has sponsored a version of the bill since he was first elected in 2016.

Laughlin said that the first time he tried to vote in a primary, he was turned away because he was registered as an independent. This bill would increase voter turnout both in the primary and in general elections, he said.

“I view this as not a tool to break either party’s system really,” Laughlin explained. “I don’t think you need a crystal ball to see that more and more people are registering as independent.”

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To advance, the bill must pass the state Senate’s State Government Committee, chaired by Sen. Cris Dush (R., Centre). Dush previously told Spotlight PA that he would not run the bill, saying he does not agree with having voters who are not a member of a party decide its candidate.

“Look I respect him as a chair, and we need to work through the process,” Laughlin said when asked about the bill’s future in the state Senate.

Multiple proposals to open the primary system are circulating in the Democratic-controlled Pennsylvania House. One is sponsored by state Rep. Marla Brown (R., Lawrence), and another is helmed by state Reps. Jared Solomon (D., Philadelphia) and Chris Rabb (D., Philadelphia).

House State Government Committee Chair Scott Conklin (D., Centre) has expressed support for the concept in the past. Last session, he introduced a bill that would open primaries. However, none of the state House bills have been considered by Conklin’s committee this session.

All of the bills would enact open primaries on only a limited basis. They would allow independent voters to participate in one party’s primary, but would not include third-party voters or allow for crossover voting — which involves voters registered to one major party voting in the other major party’s primary.

Spokespeople for the state House and Senate majority parties did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the bills’ futures.

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