Pressure grows to loosen party grip on Pennsylvania primary

Pennsylvania: Land of Disenfranchisement? It's not the state slogan, but Pennsylvania is in the minority of states with closed primary elections.

Capitol Building, Harrisburg. (Kevin McCorry/WHYY)

Capitol Building, Harrisburg. (Kevin McCorry/WHYY)

Pennsylvania: Land of Disenfranchisement?

It’s not the state slogan, but Pennsylvania is in the minority of states with closed primary elections as the number of independent voters grows quickly and sparks a debate in Pennsylvania’s Legislature for the first time in memory about opening up party primaries.

It helps that it is led by a high-profile backer, the top Republican in the GOP-controlled state Senate, Joe Scarnati, who has his own story about switching his registration to independent in 2000 to get elected.

“As I look at extremism that takes place in primaries today and lack of participation, I want to increase that participation in the primary process,” Scarnati, R-Jefferson, said in an interview Wednesday. “And I think it is a start, it’s not a solution, but it is a start to start getting some moderation in our primary process.”

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Scarnati’s bill, which would let unaffiliated voters cast ballots in a party’s primary, received a hearing this past week in the Senate State Government Committee as part of a broader election reform package.

It has the support of the committee chairman, Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, as well as backing from the Senate’s ranking Democrat, Jay Costa, Gov. Tom Wolf and good-government groups Common Cause and the Committee of Seventy.

Costa, of Allegheny County, said he sees the bill as a way to get more voters engaged.

In Pennsylvania, about 786,000 of the state’s 8.5 million voters are unaffiliated, up 75% in eight years, reflecting national trends that are fueling activism around the cause of opening up primaries.

Here’s the catch: researchers don’t find that open primaries have much, if any, effect on increasing turnout or moderating politics.

One paper, published in 2011 by researchers from the Public Policy Institute of California, Princeton University and the universities of Denver and Chicago, found that “we should expect little from open primary reform in the modern political age.”

“In fact, most of the effects we have found tend to be the opposite of those that are typically expected: the more open the primary system, the more liberal the Democrat and the more conservative the Republican,” it said.

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.

“Most people who call themselves independent or unaffiliated actually vote pretty consistently with one of the major parties,” said Seth Masket, director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver. “They just prefer not to call themselves a member of that party or be identified that way.”

States have a hodge-podge of primary election laws, and Pennsylvania is among the most closed states, along with heavily populated New York and Florida, analysts say.

There is movement, albeit slow, among states to open up primaries, say researchers from the National Conference on State Legislatures.

Pennsylvania, since at least 1937, has had closed primaries, and researchers say primary elections were originally created as a way to smash the influence of party brass over picking nominees.

Now, a constellation of advocacy groups want to open primaries for a similar reason: to smash the influence of parties over the political process.

Jen Bullock, a Montgomery County psychotherapist and registered independent, said this is the most traction she’s seen 15 years after founding the group Independent Pennsylvanians.

An open primary system can erode the outsized influence of political parties over a system of elected government that doesn’t address issues of concern to ordinary citizens anymore, Bullock said.

“I don’t think the parties should be gatekeepers to our voting rights,” Bullock said.

Party officials are keeping a low-profile on the issue. Democratic Party chairwoman Nancy Patton Mills said she would leave the matter to the party’s elected officials, while Scarnati said Republican Party officials have told him “they’re not happy about it.”

But, he said, he has come to the conclusion after 19 years in office that he is right, and that willingness to compromise is badly needed in the state Capitol.

“The upside for political parties,” Scarnati said, “is far greater than the downside.”

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