Alan Novak spent eight years as the chairman of Pennsylvania’s Republican Party, trying to secure votes for GOP candidates across the state.
During that time, Novak said, his party “didn’t think much about independent” voters. And as a party boss, he didn’t think that voters should participate in primary elections unless they registered as Democrats or Republicans.
T.J. Rooney, a former chair of the state Democratic Party, said the same thing at a Senate committee hearing Tuesday, where lawmakers considered a suite of election reform measures, including a bill that would open Pennsylvania’s closed primaries to independent voters.
Rooney and Novak both told senators they probably would have opposed the proposal when they were party bosses.
But now that they’re not in charge of collecting votes, they support it. Both men said Tuesday that open primaries would encourage more Pennsylvanians to vote and lead to more competitive elections.
“If I’d uttered these words 10 years ago, my pants would have caught on fire and my tongue would have fallen out of my head,” Rooney said. “But it’s true — this is not working. These initiatives to bring more people in and include them are clearly the right way to go.”
Current election law prohibits independent voters in Pennsylvania from participating in party primaries, where Democrats and Republicans winnow down their party’s field of candidates ahead of a general election.
But a bill sponsored by Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, would allow independent voters to cast ballots for one party on a primary election day. Registered Republicans and Democrats would continue to vote for candidates in their own party.
The purpose of the closed primary is to ensure that only dedicated, registered voters have a say in their party’s nomination process. But critics say it disenfranchises voters who choose not to identify as Democrats or Republicans.
Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton, said closed primaries need to change as more and more Pennsylvanians register as independents. She said Pennsylvania’s current policy is particularly problematic in local elections, such as school board races, where candidates may cross-file with both parties to get on the ballot.
Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, also pointed out that some areas have one-party control of local and county offices. A city such as Harrisburg or Philadelphia may only have Democrats running in municipal races, even in primaries. That means that Republican voters don’t have a say in who runs their city, said Williams, who is a Democratic candidate for mayor this year.
Given the rise of independent voter registration in the past decade, good government groups and election reform advocates say that Pennsylvania risks disenfranchising more of its citizens if it doesn’t open primaries to unaffiliated voters.
Pennsylvania is now home to 786,000 registered independent voters, according to the Department of State. Their ranks have more than doubled in the last ten years, making them the fastest-growing voter group in the state, according to Jeremy Gruber, senior vice president of the nonprofit advocacy group Open Primaries.
Gruber told the Senate committee that half of all millennials in the U.S., including more than a third of black and Hispanic millennials, consider themselves independents. Half of the veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are also independent voters, he said.
If independent voter registration continues to keep pace with past trends, barring such voters from state primary elections is “simply unsustainable,” Gruber said.
Novak also pointed out that independent voters already have a substantial role in general elections.
In his native Chester County, for instance, 42 percent of voters are registered Republicans, 39 percent are registered Democrats, according to Department of State data.
The remaining 20 percent are unaffiliated or registered with third parties. Those voters can sway a tight general election, but they have no say in who’s on the ballot if they’re barred from primary elections.
Novak thinks that the state would have stronger political parties and more competitive races if independent voters could cast votes earlier in the election process.
“I think candidates and parties will be better the sooner they have to focus their message and their outreach to a general election audience,” Novak said. “It’ll make [candidates] better and it’ll make the process better.”