HARRISBURG – Unless something historic happens before next April, one of seven registered voters in Pennsylvania will have no chance to check the name of their favorite candidate during the presidential primaries.
About 675,000 voters are registered as independents. Another 440,000 belong to minor political parties.
Because of Pennsylvania’s closed primaries, they can only vote in the general election.
The exclusive system, shared by 10 other states, is designed to give added weight to the votes of party faithful, experts say. But it also contributes to more rigid positions among candidates and makes younger voters feel excluded.
“The closed primary undoubtedly creates more polarized and extreme candidates, which definitely leads to gridlock,” said Slippery Rock University political science professor David Kershaw. “Ideologues will refuse to cooperate. Their way is correct, everyone else is not.”
Wilkes University political science professor Thomas Baldino said research shows younger voters eschew party labels because they are disappointed by the Obama administration and have seen little done among Republicans to win their affection.
Those young voters are more likely to register as independents.
Adults under age 34 represent less than one-quarter of the state’s registered voters but half of those who describe themselves as independent, according to the Department of State.
They include Haley Didget, an education major at Bloombsburg University who sat outside the Student Services Center on Friday with Logan Bullock, who is not registered but plans to sign up in time to vote in the presidential election.
Bullock said she, like Didget, didn’t have much interest in joining a political party.
Both said they don’t believe party labels accurately reflect their views.
“If you say you are a member of a political party, then people think you believe this, this and this,” Didget said.
That’s not a comfortable proposition for young adults still trying to sort out what they think, she said.
At Penn State’s main campus, the Independents Club has emerged as a safe haven for students to debate politics without getting mired in partisan branding, said Cody Kondratenko, a club spokesman.
The group, founded in 2011, has about 30 students on its email list, though its meetings attract about half that number. Only one member is a political science major, said Kondratenko, who is studying finance and accounting.
Club meetings are intended as a forum to discuss political topics. The last session focused on the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran.
Campus Democrats and Republicans “would never do that,” he said.
When he arrived at Penn State, Kondratenko visited the university Democrats and Republicans. They mostly spent time promoting candidates, rather than discussing political topics.
“I couldn’t stand it,” he said.
He also believes that students who identify with a major party tend to be inflexible about listening to different views.
“One of the frustrations is that it’s really polarized,” he said.
Kondratenko is from New Hampshire, which has open primaries. The system creates an incentive to be a political independent, he said, because voters can participate in either primary, depending on which candidate they like best.
Almost 44 percent of New Hampshire voters register as independents. They outnumber the membership in either major party.
Baldino, the Wilkes professor, said the fact that Pennsylvania punishes independent voters shows that “it’s a real statement” when someone refuses to join a party.
Some young voters may not understand that by registering as independents, they shut themselves out of the primaries, he added.
A system that discourages independent-minded voters is an incentive for party leaders, he said, since it makes it easier to maintain status quo.
Kershaw, the Slippery Rock professor, said closeted independents in Pennsylvania join the major political parties just to participate in the primaries.
He pointed to a recent poll that found 17 percent of the registered voters surveyed describe themselves as independent.
That’s double the percentage that are actually registered without any political affiliation, state data shows.