With focus on Pa.’s election code, advocates call for action on state’s primaries

(Kelley Minars/Flickr)

When it comes to the type of primary elections and the laws governing them in states across the nation, the United States looks more like a patchwork quilt and less like a unified country.

Nine states, including Pennsylvania, host closed primaries, allowing only voters registered within a party to vote for party nominees. 

Fifteen other states hold primary elections that are open to everyone, Louisiana is the lone state not to hold a primary election at all and Nebraska is the only state to offer nonpartisan primary ballots to voters, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. 

In Pennsylvania, a state with a long history of closed primaries, lawmakers and special interest groups are advocating for a change in the state’s primary election laws.

The Case for Opening Primaries 

In 2019, more than 1.2 million Pennsylvania voters were registered as “unaffiliated,” or third party voters as national trends show the number of self-identified “independents” increasing, according to Pew Research Center.

Yet, in states such as Pennsylvania, with closed or partially closed primaries, independent and unaffiliated voters are left out of a portion of their civic duty.

A September 2020 Franklin & Marshall College Poll found that 67 percent of registered voters in Pennsylvania said they strongly or somewhat strongly favored opening the state’s primary elections to all registered voters.

A Bipartisan Issue? 

The lack of voter inclusion in Pennsylvania’s primary elections led a bipartisan group of state lawmakers, including Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati, R-Jefferson,(who is retiring at year’s end after 20 years in the Legislature); Tom Killion, R-Delaware; Dan Laughlin, R-Erie; Pat Browne, R-Lehigh; Sen. John Yudichak, I-Luzerne, and a slew of Democrats, to sponsor SB 300 in 2019. 

The bill would have allowed the state to conduct what’s known as an “open to unaffiliated voters” primary, which allows unaffiliated voters to choose which party’s primary to participate in, but they can only choose between a Democratic and Republican primary ballot. It does not allow for “cross-over” voting, which would allow voters of one party to vote for another’s candidates. 

The bill passed the Senate but was ultimately left to languish in the House’s State Government Committee.

“They simply didn’t look at it,” said Carol Kuniholm, vice president of government and social policy with the League of Women Voters. She said it is common for bills to have strong support in one chamber and not in the other.

However, Kuniholm said, it’s an issue of transparency because the public does not know who is opposing the bills or why since party caucus meetings are held behind closed doors.

“Whose voice was loudest? We don’t know,” said Kuniholm, who also helms the election reform group Fair Districts PA. She added that there “certainly will be” another primary reform bill in the next legislative session to begin in January.

The state House’s top Republican, Speaker Bryan Cutler, of Lancaster County, has said publicly that he’s opposed to opening up primaries to all voters, despite Senate Republicans signing on SB 300. 

Cutler’s spokesman, Mike Straub, told the Capital-Star that while Cutler opposes opening up the primaries, he’s open to bringing any bill to the floor, even if he’s a ‘no’ vote on it. 

“Cutler has always treated all legislation the same way, regardless of his own feelings or position,” Straub said. “So any open primary legislation next session will get the same treatment. It will go to the State Government Committee, if it gets agreement there – we will see where our entire caucus is on the bill.”

Next Steps 

Despite the fact that Scarnati’s bill fell short, special interest groups have their eyes set on opening up Pennsylvania’s primaries.

Open Primaries PA, a coalition of community, civic and business organizations have been calling on lawmakers to make the change happen.

In a statement, the group says it supports any change in the status quo.

“Open Primaries PA supports the open primary process for Pennsylvania’s elections,” the statement reads. “However, there are numerous other election systems to consider, and we encourage an informed debate around which would best serve the voters and the commonwealth.”

Meanwhile, the League of Women Voters, a national organization encouraging women to get involved in public policy and politics, has said it also wants to see the state’s primaries become accessible to other voters.

“The League of Women Voters supports abandoning the closed primary system in favor of a semi-or fully open primary,” Kuniholm said.

To get it passed this time around, she said more public understanding is needed.

“Voters need to understand what’s at stake,” Kuniholm said. “It’s going to take the public saying, ‘we need a change.’”

Cassie Miller
A native Pennsylvanian, Cassie Miller worked for various publications across the Midstate before joining the team at the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. In her previous roles, she has covered everything from local sports to the financial services industry. Miller has an extensive background in magazine writing, editing and design. She is a graduate of Penn State University where she served as the campus newspaper’s photo editor. She is currently pursuing her master’s degree in professional journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In addition to her role at the Capital-Star, Miller enjoys working on her independent zines, Dead Air and Infrared.