HARRISBURG, Pa. (Erie News Now) – There are about 1.3 million registered independent voters in Pennsylvania who are unable to vote in primary elections.
Pennsylvania is one of nine states with a closed primary system, meaning only registered Democrats and Republicans can vote to solidify candidates for the general election.
However, the push for open primary legislation is gaining traction in Harrisburg. This week, the House State Government Committee heard testimony from advocates and experts on open primaries.
“Bringing independents into the equation, I think creates much more opportunity for bridging the partisan divide at both the legislative level and the community level,” said John Opdycke, President of Open Primaries.
Advocates like Opdycke say open primaries are crucial to ensure all voices are heard and that they can also increase turnout in general elections.
“Opening the primaries to independents is not simply about giving them access to the primary. It will help create increased turnout in the general election,” said Opdycke. “Independent voters, if they’re engaged early, if the candidates start communicating with them during the primary season, they’re much more likely to turn out in the general election,” Opdycke added.
The State Government Committee is considering House Bill 1369, open primary legislation sponsored by State Representative Chris Quinn (R-Delaware).
“If you look at Pennsylvania in general, if you look at our two political parties, we’re becoming much more polarized,” said Quinn. “I mean, it’s sort of what I almost want to call the worst part of our parties. People are going to the corners as opposed to trying to come together,” Quinn added.
Rep. Quinn’s legislation would allow the 1.3 million independent and unaffiliated voters to choose a party primary to participate in. He says it would not affect those registered as either Republican or Democrat.
“This is really simply allowing independent and nonpartisan voters, to the day of the election, show up and decide, yes, I’m going to vote in the Republican primary or vote in the Democratic primary. That’s what the legislation does,” said Quinn.
Quinn says more and more people in his district and across Pennsylvania are becoming frustrated with increasing party polarization. He’s hoping more people become aware and spread the word about open primaries.
“People are so frustrated right now, they’re so frustrated with politics that they just want to walk away and throw up their hands. And that’s not what we need,” said Quinn. “We need people to engage and help us fix it,” he added.
Experts who shared testimony at this week’s hearing pointed to a multitude of issues with closed primaries. One of the biggest concerns was the small percentage of registered voters who actually show up to the polls on Primary Election Day.
“We’re vulnerable, to what I’ll call, the tyranny of the minority,” said David Thornburgh, Chair of Ballot PA.
Thornburgh says those who do show up tend to have more partisan views, and as a result, tend to elect more partisan candidates.
“We have a small number of people driving elections because they’re in the primaries and because we exclude people from primaries. We can no longer expect the kind of accountability from that process that I think we deserve,” said Thornburgh, who also calls the current system “taxation without representation.”
“We pay $20-25 million a year to hold elections on behalf of the political parties, but not everybody literally gets invited to that party,” said Thornburgh.
He says it’s time for a change, especially as the number of independent voters increases.
“Nationally, about 50 percent of all young voters who register for the first time choose to be registered as independent,” said Thornburgh, who added that a majority of voters support open primaries. “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 added.
Independent voters also testified to express their concerns and experiences with the current system.
“We vote for candidates, not the party. I have voted for Democrats. I have voted for Republicans. I voted for greens, libertarians and independents. I am like other independents who don’t want to be forced to join a party to participate in the primary,” said Jennifer Bullock with Independent Primaries PA. “We believe in decoupling voting rights with party affiliation. We believe that parties should be participants in elections, not gatekeepers of them,” Bullock added.
Northern tier State Representative Clint Owlett (R-Tioga/Bradford/Potter) sits on the State Government Committee and shared a statement to ErieNewsNow which reads in part:
“Tuesday’s hearing about legislation to implement open primaries generated some interesting testimony and gives us something to think about moving forward. In the meantime, voters who are registered as independents or other third parties currently are able to vote in the primary by changing their registration 14 days or more prior to the primary.”
Some lawmakers on the committee expressed concerns about Rep. Quinn’s legislation and say it gives more privileges to non-partisan, or independent voters than to partisan, meaning Democrat or Republican, voters.
“How would it not be unfair to the majority of Pennsylvanians – 85 percent of them – to allow a very small percentage of voters to show up and say I want to influence this party’s primary or that party’s primary,” said Representative Russ Diamond (R-Lebanon).
“I don’t necessarily believe that it’s the government’s responsibility to fix the political party’s problems for them. In fact, that’s what the general election is for,” said Representative Paul Schemel (R-Franklin).
Companion legislation to Rep. Quinn’s bill was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Dan Laughlin (R-Erie). Both bills will need committee approval before reaching the floor in their respective chambers for a full vote.
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