(Capital-Star photo by Michala Butler)
A state House committee heard testimony on Thursday from supporters and opponents of legislation that would update Pennsylvania’s election code to do away with closed primaries.
It’s the latest effort aimed at including independent or unaffiliated voters in a part of Pennsylvania’s voting process that presently only allows voters aligned with Democrats or Republicans to determine who appears on November general election ballots.
“Primary elections are viewed by many citizens as indistinguishable from any other election,” Rep. Marla Brown, R-Lawrence, the main sponsor of HB 976, told the House State Government Committee’s subcommittee on campaign finance and elections.
“In many races and in many communities, the primary election is the only real competitive stage for the electoral calendar,” Brown added. “The increase in geographical partisanship and the decline in ticket-splitting have led to reliable partisan outcomes in many general election contests in districts at a local, state and federal level.”
Committee member Rep. Tarah Probst, D-Monroe, said she was concerned that bad-faith actors could manipulate elections via “completely” open primaries: “You might have a Democrat or a Republican voting for the opposite party for the person they basically want to lose,” Probst said, adding she was generally supportive of the idea. “I do believe we should have it.”
If Pennsylvania were to alter its current closed primary election system, there are a few varieties used by other states it might consider, Ben Williams, a policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures told the committee:
- Partially-closed primary: These give discretion to the individual parties and state law about whether or not the parties wish to allow unaffiliated voters to participate in primaries. Nine states use that system, Williams said.
- Open to unaffiliated voter primary: Members registered with a particular party or not registered with any party can participate in either party’s primary. But the unaffiliated voters have to select a ballot, and there’s usually a method to make sure they can’t pull ballots from both parties.
- Partially-open primary: This allows any voter to vote in any primary, Williams said, but, if a Republican were to vote in a Democratic primary it would be considered a party registration change. An unaffiliated voter’s registration would not change regardless of which party they voted for in the primary. Sixteen states use that system.
There are a few other methods, Williams said, but those three plus closed primaries, which Pennsylvania now has, are the most-used kinds of primary elections.
Thad Hall, director of elections for Mercer County, argued that changing the state’s closed primary system would result in causing more problems than it solved. According to Hall, who has a Ph.D. in political science, academic research has shown that moving from a closed primary to an open primary was not likely to result in a large boost in voter turnout.
“This change is also not likely to result in a different type of candidate being nominated,” Hall told the committee. “Instead, it’s going to create complications for local election offices.”
Hall said if unaffiliated registrants can vote in either party’s primaries, counties will have to be prepared for every unaffiliated voter registering to vote in one party primary or the other.
“In Mercer County, I would have to order 19,000 additional ballots for every primary election to account for possible turnout by unaffiliated registrants,” Hall said. “Adding 19,000 ballots has an array of downstream effects, and it affects my ballot security, my ballot accounting, and my ballot storage.”
Hall also said opening primaries to independent voters would make polling places “more chaotic and contentious” because while unaffiliated voters could choose whether to vote Democrat or Republican, party members wouldn’t have the option to choose the other party’s ballot. He said that could lead to confrontations with election board workers. It could also create issues for mail-in ballots, since voters have to decide in advance which party’s ballot they want to receive, Hall noted.
“This is a recipe for confusion and problems,” Hall said.
Jeremy Gruber, senior vice president for the nonprofit organization Open Primaries PA disagreed. “There’s 1.2 million independents that are shut out of Pennsylvania’s primaries. They are the fastest growing group of voters in the state; they’re growing at 7% a year while membership in the parties is stagnating,” Gruber said.
He argued that the evidence showed that independent voters do vote, and posited that open primaries can have a positive effect on voter turnout and participation. Gruber also said the “strategic voting” concern that Probst raised “doesn’t happen to any measurable degree.”
“Forty-one states have open primaries, from Montana to Texas, to Massachusetts to California,” Gruber said. “If they can do it, why can’t Pennsylvania?”
Former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rocky Bleier, a Vietnam War veteran and co-chair of the group Ballot PA Vets, told the committee that veterans choose to register as independents in high numbers.
“I believe it’s a travesty that the brave men and women who have sacrificed so much to defend democracy are denied the fundamental right to vote,” Bleier said. “We have an opportunity right now, in this moment, to correct this injustice on behalf of Pennsylvania’s brave veterans, and the rest of the 1.1 million people who are currently unable to fully participate in that democracy.”
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