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Senate Bill Would Open PA Primaries

From the Advocacy Committee

June 1, 2023

A bill that would open primaries to unaffiliated voters was introduced by a bi-partisan pair of Pennsylvania state senators earlier this spring.

The Commonwealth is one of only nine states that do not allow independent voters to participate in primary elections. There are 1.1 million unaffiliated and third-party voters in the state -- about 14.5% of the its electorate. The number of unaffiliated voters has risen over past years, by 51,816 voters between 2015 and 2021 and the registration of independent voters grew by 87,986 since the 2018 primary. About half of U.S. military veterans identify as politically independent.

Currently Pennsylvanians are only allowed to vote in the primary election of the party in which they are registered. Registered Democrats can only vote for the candidates on the Democratic ballot on Primary Day. Similarly, only registered Republicans can vote for Republican candidates. Unregistered voters or those registered formally with the Libertarian or Green parties are not entitled to vote in the state’s primary election at all, with the notable exceptions of local ballot questions or state constitutional amendments.

Introduced by Senators Dan Laughlin, R-Erie, and Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton, Senate Bill 400 was introduced on April 26 and immediately referred to the Senate State Government Committee. Just before the bill was introduced, The Tribune Democrat of Johnstown quoted the chair of that committee, Sen. Cris Dush (R., Centre), as saying that “it’s like having the Baltimore Ravens be involved with the draft of the Pittsburgh Steelers.” Dush propagated false claims of election fraud in 2020 and pushed for an investigation of that year’s presidential election. This session, he has sponsored bills that would require additional election audits and eliminate no-excuse mail voting.

The committee has not held a hearing on the bill (which is not required under Senate rules) and it is not scheduled for a vote currently. State Rep. Scott Conklin (D., Centre), the new chair of his chamber’s State Government Committee, has served for years as the panel’s minority chair and has consistently expressed support for the bill.

At a spring appearance, long-time political reform advocate David Thornburgh said that about a third of independent voters lean Democrat, another third lean Republican, and the hold-outs are “I’ll let you know when I get there” voters. He currently heads BallotPA, an organization dedicated to making change. Thornburgh also makes the argument that repealing closed primaries allows voters to “try before they buy” before deciding to join one of the two parties. He also calls closed primaries undemocratic because tax dollars are used to cover the cost of intra-party canvasses, calling it a literal “taxation without representation.”

Other good government organizations, such as the Committee of Seventy, argue that introducing this new pool of voters to primaries would increase voter participation, decrease hyper partisanship and create more competitive races.

Importantly, SB400 would not completely open primaries, but would allow “unenrolled electors” to vote in primary elections by choosing a political party primary election in which to participate. It defines unenrolled electors as registered voters who selected “no affiliation”, “none”, or “independent” on their Pennsylvania voter registration application. In other words, independent voters would be allowed only to choose a single party with which to vote in a primary. The bill does not allow members of established third parties such as the Libertarian or Green Party to vote in either the Republican or Democrat primary elections.

Editor’s Note: There is certainly public support for this bill, and a majority of the state’s biggest news organizations have endorsed it, but it cannot come up for a vote in the Senate if it does not get put on the agenda and voted out of the State Government Committee, which requires Sen. Dush to put it on the calendar. The bill would likely also face opposition from the Republican majority in the Senate.

The Pennsylvania House maintains its one-vote Democratic majority, and there were two similar bills introduced in that Chamber around the same time that SB400 was introduced (one by Democrat Jared Solomon of Philadelphia and one by Republican Maria Brown of Lawrence County.) These bills were referred to the House State Government Committee but are not gaining the public or media attention that SB400 is getting. They could provide a vehicle for getting an open primaries bill passed in the House and over to the Senate, although there has been no reporting on that and it seems unlikely, at least until after the General Election in the fall. The current legislative session will run until November 30, 2024.

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