© 2017 Commonwealth Commonsense

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The Problem

Pennsylvania’s current Primary Election system disenfranchises a large and growing percentage of the electorate.


Every spring Pennsylvania hosts a Primary Election that determines the party nominees that will appear on the ballot in November’s General Election. However, Pennsylvania is one of only nine states that has a closed Primary Election process, which means that if you show up to vote in the spring:


  • You can only vote if you’re a registered member of a party (except for the occasional referendum question)

  • You can only vote for the candidates seeking the nomination of that party


As the number of people registered as unaffiliated or under a third party (e.g. Libertarian, Green, etc.) increases in Pennsylvania (in line with the national trend of citizens who increasingly identify as independents), more and more voters are cut out of a vital part of the democratic process. 


Over the past five years, the number of registered voters in the state that do not belong to either of the two major parties has increased in both real numbers and as a total percent of the electorate.  According to the PA Department of State, as of November 2017, 1.175 million (out of 8.431 million) registered voters, or nearly 14% of the electorate, were neither Republican nor Democrat.


That means more than one out every eight registered voters cannot participate in the yearly spring election that is funded with the tax dollars from every Pennsylvanian, regardless of their political affiliation.  Some might say this is a form of taxation without representation.


Some argue that party membership is open to anyone, and a voter is welcome to join a major party whenever they choose.  But this ignores the fact that voting is supposed to be a demonstration of principles and priorities, and if voters by principle do not align with a major party or do not prioritize membership in one, the system should not require them to conform to it—the system should adjust to represent the voters.


Furthermore, turnout in Primary Elections ranges between 8-15% of registered voters in off-year elections (with a rare jump to the mid-30s% for a contentious presidential primary), and, according to Ballotpedia around almost all state legislative races districts are safe Republican or safe Democrat seats (meaning the margin of victory was greater than 10 points).  That means, whenever a seat is contested, only 8-15% of voters are determining who wins it.


Closed primaries produce a political climate where politicians become more responsive to their party than their constituents.

The Current Process


The regulation that determines who can vote in our Primary Elections is defined by the Pennsylvania Election Code, Article VII Qualifications of Electors, Section 702. Qualifications of Electors at Primaries.


“…no elector who is not registered and enrolled as a member of a political party [] shall be permitted to vote the ballot of such party or any other party ballot at any primary.”


All political parties are private organizations, and yet Pennsylvania’s closed Primary Elections—where only party members can vote—are funded with public dollars, tax revenue that comes from over 1 million registered Pennsylvanian voters who choose no political affiliation.


If we want our state government to be more representative of the people we have to figure out ways to adjust the system to increase their participation.

Possible Solutions

There are many alternatives to a closed primary system.  According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are five other ways Primary Elections can be conducted outside of a “closed” system:


  • Partially Closed – Political parties choose whether to allow unaffiliated voters to participate in their nominating contests before each election cycle

  • Partially Open – Voters can cross party lines, but they must either publicly declare their ballot choice or their ballot selection may be regarded as a form of registration with the corresponding party

  • Open to Unaffiliated Voters – Only unaffiliated voters can participate in any party primary they choose, but voters who are registered with one party are not allowed to vote in another party’s primary

  • Open – Voters may choose privately in which primary to vote

  • Top-Two – Every voter, regardless of political registration, gets the same ballot, listing all candidates.Each candidate is authorized to list a party affiliation.The top two vote getters in each race, regardless of party, advance to the general election.

One option currently being considered in Pennsylvania is SB1234, which would allow unaffiliated voters to vote in the primary of their choice - a system shared by 16 other states.

The organization Open Primaries, which advocates for open and nonpartisan primary systems. Offers some further resources for better understanding how closed primaries inhibit a representative and accountable government.