Bills to open Pennsylvania’s primary elections to independent voters pass in state House committee

The commonwealth’s current closed primary system disenfranchises about 1.2 million people, advocates say

By: - October 17, 2023 3:40 pm
(Mario Tama/Getty Images)

(Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Legislation that would open Pennsylvania’s primary elections to roughly 1.2 million voters who aren’t registered with a political party passed in a state House committee on Tuesday.

Two identical bills, one sponsored by a Democrat and one by a Republican, would allow voters who have no party affiliation to choose which party’s primary ballot they want to vote on when they go to the polls. Pennsylvania is one of only nine states with closed primaries.

Advocates for open primaries have argued that the current system disenfranchises groups including about 400,000 Pennsylvania veterans and nearly two-thirds of young adults who have no strong fealty to a single political party.

Although the legislation is bipartisan, Republicans on the House State Government Committee voted against the bills after some said they opposed the idea of allowing people who are not members of a party to vote for that party’s nominees.

Rep. Brad Roae (R-Crawford), the ranking Republican on the committee, also expressed concern about the timing of the legislation, which would take effect immediately if it is passed by the full House, Senate and signed by Gov. Josh Shapiro.

Facing uncertainty about pending legislation that would change the date of the primary election, county election offices could be overwhelmed by the need to make changes on short notice, Roae said. 

“Now counties are going to have to deal with training poll workers that the old system has done that somebody that’s not in a party can ask for a ballot to vote in that party’s primary,” Roae said. 

He also said the legislation, which would not allow unaffiliated voters to choose party officials such as committee people, would require counties to produce two sets of ballots for each party in each municipality.

“We can only throw so many changes at the poll workers and at the election office staffs at the same time, so I don’t think this is a good time to be doing this,” Roae said.

Lisa Schaefer, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, said counties have not taken a position with regard to open primaries. But, she said, the legislation would require significant changes to election administration including ballot ordering and printing, voter education, additional staff and more. 

Lawmakers should include the counties in discussions about election-related legislation to allow them to address issues while the bills are being developed rather than creating challenges to implementation and voter confusion, Schaefer said in a statement.

Schafer added there were lessons to be learned from the Legislature’s passage of Act 77 — to allow voters to cast ballots by mail without an excuse — only six months before the 2020 presidential primary election. She said that was “a course of action for which we are still dealing with the consequences.”

Advocates for the open primary proposal said the vote was historic. State Government Committee Chairperson Scott Conklin (D-Centre) noted that he has sponsored open primary legislation for the 18 years he has served in the House. Tuesday was the first time such a bill has been voted out of committee.

David Thornburgh, senior advisor to the Philadelphia-based good government group Committee of Seventy, said that despite the Republican opposition to the bills in committee, he is confident that the legislation will receive bipartisan support in the House and Senate. 

The bills’ prime sponsors were Rep. Jared Solomon (D-Philadelphia) and Rep. Marla Brown (R-Lawrence). Another bipartisan bill, Senate Bill 300, passed with a 42-8 vote in the Senate in 2019.

“It really demonstrates there is bipartisan support for this,” Thornburgh said. 


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Peter Hall
Peter Hall

Peter Hall has been a journalist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for more than 20 years, most recently covering criminal justice and legal affairs for The Morning Call in Allentown. His career at local newspapers and legal business publications has taken him from school board meetings to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and many points of interest between. He earned a degree in journalism from Susquehanna University.