It’s time for Pennsylvania to open its primary elections to all voters

Closed primaries keep too many people out of a crucial part of the process.

September 15, 2023 12:18 pm

This article is part of U.S. Democracy Day, a nationwide collaborative on Sept. 15, the International Day of Democracy, in which news organizations cover how democracy works and the threats it faces. To learn more, visit

Pennsylvania’s closed primaries keep most voters out of a key part of the decision-making process, namely which candidates will appear on the general election ballot.

It’s time for that to change. 

By the time the general election rolls around, the candidates have been chosen by party die-hards, and those who are undecided or independent are forced to pick between candidates who may not have been their first, or second, or even third choice. 

This is how we end up with the extreme views from both parties dominating the conversation, while those in the middle– who may in fact align with the party’s more outspoken members on a given issue– continue to feel unheard and disregarded. Independent voters’ taxes help pay for all the costs involved with handling primary elections, yet they’re shut out from participating.

Without competitive primaries, the politicians with the most money and name recognition typically coast to easy victories, and in many cases, actually strayed far from their party’s middle. That’s started to change thanks to the Herculean efforts of millennial and Gen-Z activists who do the kind of campaigning that takes no vote for granted. 

We can see this in Allegheny County, where progressives’ relentless get-out-the-vote efforts have unseated longtime incumbents and involved younger voters in the process at unprecedented rates, despite the hand-wringing from some who prefer the status quo.

According to Ballot PA, there are more than 1 million independent voters in Pennsylvania, the fastest growing group of voters in the commonwealth– and the country, according to Gallup. This, while membership in both the GOP and Democratic parties has remained relatively flat in the most recent elections. And half of veterans choose to register as independents; to leave them out of the primary process feels particularly wrong. 

The arguments against opening Pennsylvania’s primaries cite practical concerns: More ballots would have to be ordered, a new way of handling mail-in ballots may have to be devised, and it could create some confusion for local elections offices. To be sure, any change to the primary system would have to take into consideration the people on the front lines at the polls, who do the often thankless work of making sure everyone who comes in to cast a ballot is able to do so.

There’s also some conflicting data about whether opening primaries to unaffiliated or independent voters would actually increase voter turnout. If it does, that’s a bonus; voter turnout is still woefully low, not just in Pennsylvania but across the U.S. But even if it only results in a small uptick in turnout, opening primaries would give more people an opportunity to vote. It will be up to the voters whether to act on it. 

Thirty states have chosen to include unaffiliated voters in their primary elections in some form or fashion. It’s time for Pennsylvania to join them, and ensure every voter has equal access to participate in our democracy. 

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.