Alan Novak & T.J. Rooney: Pennsylvania’s unaffiliated voters deserve a voice
As the Pennsylvania General Assembly heads back to Harrisburg to take up the commonwealth’s business, a priority for their fall agenda should be passing Senate Bill 300. This proposal would enable Pennsylvania’s unaffiliated voters to have a voice in casting votes in either the Republican or Democrat ballot on primary election day.
“Open primaries” is one issue among numerous other election reform measures which will be debated this legislative session. We urge lawmakers in both parties to dust off Pennsylvania’s archaic Election Code, last updated in 1936, and consider primary reform as critical for the state’s voters and political process.
As the former leaders of the Pennsylvania Republican Party and Democratic Party, we think that allowing independents to vote in the primaries can make the parties better and stronger. According to the Pennsylvania Department of State, the fastest growing segment of voters are unaffiliated with a political party. Their number has more than doubled in the last decade — now at nearly 800,000, Pennsylvania’s unaffiliated voters outnumber the entire voting population of Delaware! Yet Pennsylvania remains one of only nine states with closed primary elections, where only Republicans and Democrats can vote in their respective party primaries.
Wouldn’t parties be better and stronger if they competed for the attention and votes of independents as early as possible — the primaries? Wouldn’t candidates and parties have to understand independents and message them to attract them — the earlier the better? It would give the candidates who figure this out a clear advantage. With nearly 4 in 10 Americans self-identifying as independents — and half of millennials — it’s imperative that the parties not only respond to this shift, but embrace it.
We have witnessed first-hand the growing partisan and ideological divide in our state and across the country. There is no single solution for this problem, but we do believe that open primaries would help us bridge this chasm that has made governing increasingly difficult. This has become only more consequential as communities around Pennsylvania become darker “red” or darker “blue.” Purplish districts where voters can expect a competitive general election are fewer and fewer, which means public officials are often elected in primaries. How can we continue to keep them closed?
Still, some may wonder why unaffiliated voters should have a right to have a voice in private party elections. Let’s be clear: Primary elections are anything but private. By one estimate, they cost Pennsylvania taxpayers $20 million every year; they are held in public buildings and are overseen by public officials. We believe all taxpaying citizens deserve equal treatment.
Senate Bill 300, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, received overwhelming bipartisan support (42-8) in passing the state Senate in June. The bill currently sits in the House State Government Committee. While the proposal would allow unaffiliated voters to choose a party primary to vote in on Election Day, it would not allow registered Republicans or Democrats to vote in the opposite party primary. Including these independents in the primary process is the right thing to do, and it will make for better political parties, better candidates and better outcomes.