Good-government groups join forces to push open primaries to top of Pennsylvania’s reform agenda

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A coalition made up of several good-government groups is trying to push a controversial piece of election reform to the top of the Legislature’s agenda: open primaries.

Pennsylvania currently has closed primaries, meaning a registered voter can only help narrow a field of candidates in the spring if they belong to the same party. Democrats vote for Democrats. Republicans vote for Republicans. Independents are usually left out of the process, unless there’s a special election or referendum on the primary ballot.

As of April 22, 785,579 of Pennsylvania’s 8.4 million registered voters were not affiliated with any party, according to the Pa. Department of State.

Under a bill introduced by Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, non-affiliated registered voters would on primary day be able to pick which party’s candidates they’d like to vote for. The legislation has bipartisan support from seven Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny.

Scarnati’s bill is one of several pieces of election reform that will be vetted Tuesday in the Senate State Government Committee. Open Primaries PA, the new coalition, officially launched on Monday ahead of the hearing.

Micah Sims is executive director of Common Cause PA, a nonpartisan, good-government group that’s part of the new coalition. Other members include the Committee of Seventy, Commonwealth Commonsense, Independent Pennsylvanians, and Philly Set Go.

Sims said it’s “really unfortunate” that independent voters pay taxes to support primary elections, but aren’t allowed to vote for candidates. The coalition has been working behind the scenes for the past year or so to meet with stakeholders and push the message that open primaries could increase (admittedly dismal) voter turnout.

In a September statement touting his open primaries legislation from last session, Scarnati adopted that messaging.

“In our most recent primary election, only 18 percent of Pennsylvania’s registered voters went to the ballot box to cast a vote,” he said in a statement. “The low turnout can in part be attributed to voters feeling disenfranchised by both major parties, who have taken control of our primary process. Allowing more people the opportunity to have a voice in their representation is an important step toward ensuring democracy.”

But to a Press Club audience earlier in 2018, Scarnati also lamented that “the extremes of the parties have taken over the primary process,” citing the defeats of moderates in Western Pa.: Republican ex-state Sen. Randy Vulakovich to ultra-conservative businessman Jeremy Shaffer; and long-serving Democrats Dom and Paul Costa to Sara Innamorato and Summer Lee, both progressives backed by the Democratic Socialists of America.

Most concerns about open primaries spring from a lack of education, Sims posits. To a person concerned that conservatives could serve as spoilers to progressive Democrats taking on entrenched incumbents, Sims responds that a registered voter is able to change their party affiliation 30 days before an election then change back after their ballot is cast.

“That is already available to Pennsylvania voters,” he said, adding that closed primaries are “not helping to avoid that.”

Scarnati’s bill, he notes, would not allow registered GOP voters to vote for Democrats in a primary, or vice versa. Only non-affiliated voters would get that choice.

Pennsylvania is one of just nine states that have closed primaries, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Nine states currently have the type of semi-open system Scarnati is proposing.

When legislation hasn’t worked, some advocates for open primaries have turned to litigation. The Open Primaries Education Fund, a New York-based advocacy group, has filed lawsuits in both the Empire State and in New Mexico, both of which failed on their first go-round.

Jeremy Gruber, the senior vice president of the Education Fund and the affiliated Open Primaries national nonprofit, is set to testify at the state Senate committee hearing Tuesday.

Sims said the Pennsylvania coalition has been in touch with the national group to serve as a partner. As for possible litigation, he said, “I don’t think we’re there yet.”

Associate Editor Sarah Anne Hughes covers the governor and Pennsylvania's agencies. Before joining the Capital-Star, she was the state capitol reporter for Billy Penn and The Incline, and a 2018 corps member for Report for America. She was previously managing editor of Washington City Paper, editor-in-chief of DCist, and a national blogger for The Washington Post.

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