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HARRISBURG, Pa. (Erie News Now) – In Pennsylvania, over one-million registered voters are not affiliated with the Democratic or Republican parties.
Voting is a cornerstone to democracy and a fundamental right of American citizens. However, Pennsylvania is one of nine states that do not allow independent voters to participate in primary elections, meaning tax paying residents must be registered with one of the two major parties to exercise their right in a primary.
“41 of the 50 states have already, some of them long ago, come to the conclusion that everybody ought to be able to vote in every election. Pennsylvania is different. Pennsylvania is an outlier,” said David Thornburgh, Chair of the BallotPA Initiative by the Committee of Seventy, a Philadelphia-based good government group. “Whether we’re, conservative Republicans, libertarians, progressive Democrats or independents, we all believe that the process works better when more people participate,” he added.
If Pennsylvania were to become an open-primary state, independent voters would be able to choose to vote in either the Democratic or Republican primary elections.
“Independent voters should be allowed to vote in a Democratic or Republican primary,” said John Opdycke, President of Open Primaries, a national advocacy group that advocates for open and nonpartisan primary systems. “The party primary system forces people into silos,” Opdycke added.
Opdycke says blocking the over one-million independents from voting is not only undemocratic, but it also negatively impacts all parties.
“It’s harmful to independents, to Democrats and Republicans, because increasingly, voters want to vote for the candidate that they like. That might be a Democrat, that might be a Republican, they want to flip-flop around,” said Opdycke. “We have a system designed for a country that doesn’t exist anymore. The country is much more independent, much more fluid. People want to vote for candidates, not parties,” Opdycke added.
Opdycke says open-primaries promote candidates who are more in-touch with the majority of voters, and not special interests.
“The primary system is set up to advantage the special interest groups that can mobilize their voters to come out and participate in a party primary. And as such, you get candidates that tend to be more connected to and sensitive to those special interest groups,” Opdycke.
Thornburgh predicts somewhere around 20 to 22-percent of registered voters will actually vote in this year’s May 17 primary, adding that they tend to be more partisan.
“The people who show up tend to be extreme partisans either from the right or from the left. When those people show up in primaries, they will tend to elect candidates who represent their views, therefore more extreme on the right or left,” said Thornburgh. “So, when they go to Harrisburg, or Washington or anywhere in between, those are the views they’re going to represent. That’s gasoline on the fire of polarization and gridlock and dysfunction,” he added.
Like Opdycke, Thornburgh says opening the primaries for independents would benefit the parties and promote moderate candidates and less polarization.
“Bring them into the primary, broaden the base of the electorate, with a less partisan electorate, and we’re going to get more centrist candidates who I think are more ready to get to the business of governing,” said Thornburgh.
Advocates say it would also give a growing independent voting population the ability to exercise their right.
“The largest and fastest growing group of voters in the country are independents,” said Opdycke
Thornburgh says the same trend is true in the commonwealth.
“Over the last five years, the independent electorate has grown much faster. It’s the fastest growing segment in Pennsylvania. It’s grown much faster than Republicans or Democrats,” said Thornburgh.
According to Thornburgh, a large amount of the independent voter population are veterans.
“One-in-two veterans identify as political independents,” said Thornburgh. “It seems to me there’s something really wrong about telling a returning veteran, who comes home to Pennsylvania after serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, and telling them they can’t vote. That’s wrong.”
Opdycke says taxpayers, whether Democrat, Republican, or independent, are all funding the primaries and should be able to exercise their right.
“The primaries are taxpayer funded. These are publicly funded elections. These are not private party elections,” said Opdycke. “They want to be private, but they want the public to fund it. And that’s the real problem with the current primary system,” he added.
It’s a problem which state Senator Dan Laughlin (R-Erie) is trying to fix.
“Our election process is very expensive and they should be allowed to participate,” said Laughlin, who is the sponsor of Senate bill 690, which would establish open primaries, and give registered independents a choice.
“Independent or unaffiliated voters are the fastest growing demographic within the voter population,” said Laughlin. “Most of the independent voters lean one way or the other, they just don’t want to be a part of the actual party. They tend to vote with their party anyway, but this would allow them, in the primary, to help pick their fall candidates, which I think is a good thing,” said Laughlin.
Laughlin’s bill passed the Senate in May of 2021 but is still awaiting approval from the House State Government Committee.
“The only kind of structural, political reform that’s going to make any difference is if we, the people, roll up our sleeves and make it happen. There’re no shortcuts. We need citizen involvement at every single level if we’re going to change the rules of the game,” said Opdycke.
ErieNewsNow reached out to the Governor’s Office for a stance on SB 690, and whether Gov. Wolf would sign it, if it landed on his desk.
“We are still reviewing the legislation but the Governor supports moving in this direction,” said Elizabeth Rementer, Press Secretary for the Office of the Governor.
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