Advocate David Thornburgh: Opening Pa.’s primaries is the ‘right and smart thing to do’

Produced By: - May 23, 2022 2:44 pm

When it comes to people and their opinions, there’s an old saying, veteran voting rights advocate David Thornburgh wryly observed on Monday: Everything has been said, but not everyone has said it.

With that caveat in place, but without directly critiquing the results, Thornburgh, the son of a former Pennsylvania governor, dove into his home state’s nationally watched primary elections, and offered one small, but so-far very difficult to achieve, way to improve them: By opening the closed contests to independent voters.

Right now, Pennsylvania’s primaries only are open to registered Democrats and Republicans, closing out 1.4 million independent voters, he said. In 14 states and Washington D.C., at least one of the major political parties conducts closed primaries for congressional and state-level offices, according to Ballotpedia.

Thornburgh said such a change is not only the smart thing to do,  as a matter of fundamental fairness, but also the smart thing to do because it would bring more people into the political process, increasing participation, and perhaps boosting the membership of the Big Two parties.

About a third of independent voters lean Democrat, another third lean Republican, and the hold-outs are “I’ll let you know when I get there” voters, Thornburgh, who runs BallotPA, an organization dedicated to making the change, said. He made his comments during Monday’s monthly Pennsylvania Press Club luncheon.

Opening the intra-party contests would provide a “try-before-you-buy” option to those voters, who might then decide to join one of the Big Two parties, he added..

Keeping unaffiliated voters out of the polls on primary day is undemocratic because the tax dollars of independent voters help cover the cost of the intra-party canvasses, even though they’re not allowed to participate in them, he argued.

“It is literally taxation without representation,” Thornburgh, the son of the late Gov. Richard Thornburgh, said, comparing the primaries to job interviews, where the interviewing committee needs to be as large and as diverse as possible.

Legislation sponsored by Rep. Chris Quinn, R-Delaware, and Sen. Dan Laughlin, R-Erie, would authorize the change.

Critically, the bills would not allow registered Democrats and Republicans to crossover to vote in the other party’s election. They still would be required to vote in their respective parties’ primary. Both bills are before the respective chambers’ State Government committees.

Thornburgh said Monday that he’d like to see legislative authorization of the proposal by year’s end. which is when the current legislative session also comes to a close.

“I truly believe that, with enough education and support, it’s a winner,” he told the crowd.

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John L. Micek
John L. Micek

A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press.

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