The Lead

A push to repeal Pa.’s closed primaries is up for discussion (again) in Harrisburg

By: - June 22, 2023 6:30 am

The Pennsylvania Seal in the state House majority caucus room. (Capital-Star photo by Peter Hall)

A state House committee on Thursday will consider two pieces of legislation that would eliminate Pennsylvania’s closed primary system, which leaves independent voters out of the early stages of the election process.

The House State Government Committee’s subcommittee on campaign finance and elections will hear testimony on two bills: HB 976, by Rep. Marla Brown, R-Lawrence, and HB 979 by Rep. Jared Solomon, D-Philadelphia. 

Solomon told the Capital-Star the bills are essentially the same legislation; both would seek to amend the state’s Election Code of 1937, and would allow non-affiliated or independent voters to choose which party to vote within each primary election, but not require them to choose the same party each time. 

Solomon said the research on including independent voters in primaries made clear that it would improve voter turnout. “Those voters engage and then they’re going to be general election voters,” he said.

He added that he viewed open primary elections as a civil rights issue. “In what other facet of the law would we ever tolerate this type of treatment of a group of people? We are not allowed as private clubs to determine who has more of a claim on democracy,” Solomon said.  “If an individual chooses to protect the integrity of their party choice and remain an independent, we should not hunker down and ask them to subscribe to our party beliefs, but rather we should encourage them to take part in the process and in the marketplace of ideas compete for their vote.” 

According to Ballot PA, a coalition of civic, community, and business organizations that advocates for open primaries, Pennsylvania is one of only nine states that excludes its 1.1 million unaffiliated or independent voters from voting in primary elections. 

Among those scheduled to testify at Thursday’s hearing are Ben Williams of the National Conference of State Legislatures; Diana Dakey of the League of Women Voters; Jeremy Gruber of Open Primaries, David Thornburgh of Ballot PA; and Vietnam War veteran and former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rocky Bleier, co-chairman of Ballot PA Vets. 

There have been previous attempts to change this part of the state’s election code: Last year, a similar bill failed to advance out of committee, and a 2019 bill passed the Senate, but died in the House. 

Ballot PA says there is support for such a measure across the political spectrum; its 2021 poll of 850 Pennsylvania voters found 69% of those who identify as “Trump Republicans” and  67% of “traditional” GOP voters, along with 85% of progressive Democrats and 75% of “centrist” Democrats approve of independent voters being allowed to cast ballots in primaries. 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Kim Lyons
Kim Lyons

Kim is a veteran western Pennsylvania journalist who has covered people and trends in politics and business for local and national publications.