State Rep. Scott Conklin (D-Centre) speaks during a Ballot PA press conference on repealing closed primary election at the state Capitol on Monday, Oct. 16, 2023 (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller).
Many of the youngest registered voters don’t identify with a political party, and in states with closed primaries, that means they don’t get to decide on candidates until the last stage of the voting process.
On Monday, students from 16 colleges and universities across Pennsylvania called for an end to closed primary elections, arguing that the prohibition prevents millions of independent and unaffiliated voters from participating in the democratic process.
Pennsylvania is one of seven states to bar independent voters from participating in primary elections.
“More than a million Pennsylvanians are being denied the political rights they are entitled to,” Josh Summers, a student at the University of Pittsburgh, said.
Research from the Institute for Citizens and Scholars shows that 61% of 18-24-year-olds do not identify with either major political party. This, coupled with Pennsylvania’s closed primary system, leaves young adults who more closely identify as ‘independent’ or ‘no affiliation’ to be excluded from the democratic process, the students said.
“When ordinary people are shut out of the right to vote and we tolerate that, we pave the way for less sensible government and our other civil liberties to be taken from us,” Summers said.
Brenna Wrubel, a 20-year-old student at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, also serves as Inspector of Elections in her home precinct near Cranberry Township.
Wrubel said she’s had to turn away independent voters who showed up to cast their ballots on primary election day.
“That’s never something I love to do, especially when it’s a primary and you have maybe 10% turnout and an off year,” Wrubel told the Capital-Star. “If somebody’s maybe even taken off work to be there, they should be able to vote, right?”
Wrubel also said that many local races are decided at the primary, citing her own as an example.
“My election was basically decided at the primary level because there are two inspectors of elections, and there was a Republican and a Democrat on the ticket,” Wrubel said. “And then you’re basically mathematically guaranteed to get it once you have that unless there’s like a massive write-in campaign. So, my election was basically decided in the primary, and independents couldn’t vote. So it’s important.”
Two bills currently under consideration in the House — HB 979 , sponsored by Philadelphia Democrats Reps. Jared Solomon and Chris Rabb, and HB 976, sponsored by Rep. Marla Brown (R-Lawrence) — would allow unaffiliated voters to cast their ballot in primary elections.
Lawmakers in Harrisburg have considered bills to change who can participate in primary elections before, with supporters making arguments similar to those voiced by students on Monday.
Still, some lawmakers and election officials have said that opening Pennsylvania’s primaries will cause confusion on Election Day and that completely open primaries could lead “bad actors” to manipulate election outcomes.
On Tuesday, the House State Government Committee is scheduled to vote on both bills.
State Rep. Scott Conklin, who chairs the committee, said Monday that after years of watching similar legislation stall, he’s “proud to be the chairman that’s going to push this bill through.”
“You should not be kept out of the voting booth because you do not agree with the Democrat or Republican,” Conklin said. “It’s time that we allow every vote count.”
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