Moving to open primaries in Pa. vetted by House committee
Pennsylvania has roughly 1.3 million voters who are registered neither as Democrats or Republicans and unlike in 41 other states, they can’t cast a ballot in primary elections.
The House State Government Committee on Tuesday heard from independent voters, veterans’ advocates and Democratic and Republican operatives who all argued the state should open its primaries to voters who are registered independents.
The hearing was held to vet legislation sponsored by Rep. Chris Quinn, R-Delaware County, that would allow voters not registered in either major party to cast a ballot in either the Republican or Democratic primary.
But some representatives expressed reservations about making such a change or were not convinced by the testifiers who spoke at the hearing held at Villanova University.
“I have a difficult time getting around why it is that individuals who don’t belong to that party would have any interest or right to demand to be part of the process of selecting who that party’s nominee will be,” said Rep. Paul Schemel, a Republican from Franklin County.
Jennifer Bullock, the director of Independent Pennsylvanians, said every primary her group marches with signs reading, “I can’t vote today. Ask me why,” and “I paid for the primaries but I can’t vote.”
Not only do independent voters support open primaries. So do Alan Novak, the former chairman of the Republican State Committee, and TJ Rooney, former chairman of the Democratic State Committee, who testified together in favor of the bill. Novak is from Chester County, where 18% of voters aren’t affiliated with a major party. He argued that political candidates would benefit from including independent voters in primaries.
“The deciders of a general election are those unaffiliated voters,” Novak said. “And the way to win is to win them earlier.”
John Opdycke, president of Open Primaries, a national non-profit working for more open and inclusive election systems, said that independent voters are the fastest-growing group of voters.
“Their numbers have doubled in the last decade,” he told the committee. “Denying the fastest-growing group of voters in the Commonwealth the franchise is unsustainable in the long haul.”
In Pennsylvania, the number of voters registered as independent or in a third party has grown by 27% in the last decade alone, according to Department of State statistics. Rep. Jared Solomon, D-Philadelphia, voiced his support of the bill throughout the hearing. He said Pennsylvania was “openly hostile” to independents, and noted that many districts, including his, have uncompetitive general elections.
“And I would think a lot of people on this committee, just because of the way this committee is constituted, also do not have general elections. Or it’s like a token, right? Someone’s on the ballot, but it’s a 90% Republican district. Good luck with that one,” Solomon said. “So independents have no say. They have zero say in the process.”
David Thornburgh, chair of Ballot PA, a coalition of civic, community and business organizations supporting open elections, called Pennsylvania’s closed primaries “an archaic system” that “chips away at a sacred right: their chance at a fair say in how their local, school, county, state and federal taxes are spent. It’s taxation without representation.”
A Franklin & Marshall College Poll in May found 64% of voters strongly or somewhat favored moving to an open primary. “This overdue change is supported by three-quarters of ordinary voters from every political camp, from libertarian to progressive, from Trump voters to fans of Bernie Sanders and everyone in between,” Thornburgh said.
Two testifiers argued that veterans are more likely to be disadvantaged by closed primaries, because about half of veterans are unaffiliated with any political party.
Marilyn Kelly-Cavotta, a retired Army staff sergeant and co-chair of Ballot PA Vets, said she’s repeatedly had to explain to veterans that they can’t vote in a primary because they registered as an independent.
“You must follow the orders of the Commander-in-Chief, but you cannot select the one that you want to see on the ballot,” Kelly-Cavotta said. “It’s like telling a veteran, ‘Thank you for your service, but not enough thanks for your voice to be heard in a primary election.’”Pennsylvania has seen multiple bills to open its primaries in recent years, and one passed in the Senate in 2019 but died due to inaction in the committee that held Tuesday’s hearing.