Proposals would end Pennsylvania’s closed primary system by opening it up to unaffiliated voters

The measures would allow independent voters to choose which political party primary they want to vote in. 

Close-up of election workers' hands handling ballots.

Election workers perform a recount of ballots from the recent Pennsylvania primary election at the Allegheny County Election Division warehouse on the Northside of Pittsburgh, June 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

Proposals to let independent voters cast ballots in party nomination primaries passed a Pennsylvania House of Representatives committee Tuesday, raising the prospect that changes could pass and take effect in time for next year’s presidential contest.

Two bills passed with support only from Democrats and were advanced toward a full House vote.

The measures would allow independent voters to choose which political party primary they want to vote in. One of the two bills would also allow third-party voters to vote in major party primaries if their party did not receive enough votes to be considered an official party.

Electors would be able to vote for the party nomination for public office candidates but not to elect candidates for party offices.

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A majority of states have some form of an open primary, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures. There are seven states with laws on the books similar to the two Pennsylvania bills, allowing unaffiliated voters to cast primary ballots.

More than 1 million Pennsylvanians are not affiliated with either party, making them the fastest-growing demographic within the state’s electorate, sponsors for the bills said. A large number of veterans and young voters are unaffiliated, sponsors said.

“For whatever reason that our primary elections suffer from so low turnout, there’s obviously something wrong with the status quo in Pennsylvania,” said Rep. Jared Solomon, D-Philadelphia, a sponsor of one of the bills. “We have an opportunity to fix that, to overcome one of those barriers to increase voters in our primary and general election system.”

David Thornburgh, who chairs Ballot PA, a nonpartisan effort that supports ending the state’s closed primary system, called the vote historic.

“It’s time to let these voters have a say in who represents them and how their government is run,” he said in a statement.

The measures are part of an effort that has seen broader support — including a bipartisan group of former governors — to weed out the most extreme candidates before a general election.

“Candidates elected by those more extreme voters don’t have as much incentive to engage in the compromise and give and take that is so essential to effective governing,” the governors — Republicans Tom Ridge, Mark Schweiker and Tom Corbett and Democrats Ed Rendell and Tom Wolf — wrote in an open letter last month. “Adding independent voters to the primary mix will help.”

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The proposed change comes on the heels of an attempt by the Legislature to move up the state’s 2024 presidential primary date, which would allow the state to have more say in deciding the presidential nominees, and avoid a conflict with the Jewish holiday of Passover. The chambers have not agreed on a date — though it would come weeks sooner than the current date set in law, April 23 — and counties in Pennsylvania have warned it is too late to make a change to successfully run the election.

Uncertainty about the date of the primary adds to the challenges faced by the counties that run the nuts-and-bolts of Pennsylvania elections, said committee member Rep. Brad Roae, R-Crawford, who voted no on both proposals.

“The election process has gotten very frustrating, very contentious,” he said. “We can only throw so many changes at the poll workers and at the election office staffs at the same time.”

House Democrats who supported the bills said the election staff could get up to speed quickly.

Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Centre, said Pennsylvania had to reach the particularly young and new voters who weren’t ascribing to either political party in growing numbers.

“It may change back again one day. But for now, allowing taxpaying citizens the right to vote, I believe, is the core of democracy,” said Conklin, the committee chair.

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