IN Lancaster County, where registered Republicans continue to outnumber registered Democrats, general elections often are essentially decided in the primaries.
Basically, whichever Republican candidate wins in the spring will win in the fall.
This works for those GOP candidates and for their supporters. But it doesn’t work for the unaffiliated and third-party registered voters who are not permitted to vote for candidates in primary elections.
All they get is taxation without representation. Their taxes pay for the salaries of elected officials they essentially didn’t get to choose.
It’s a lousy deal.
And, to add insult to injury, their tax dollars help to pay for the primaries from which they are excluded. Primary elections cost Pennsylvania an estimated $20 million each year and they’re administered, like general elections, by taxpayer-funded county elections offices.
Closed primaries are not just fundamentally unfair. They also encourage extremism and diminish democracy. They encourage candidates to play to their party’s base, rather than to seek to win support from a broad swath of voters. Because turnout tends to be low in nonpresidential primary elections, candidates end up trying to appeal to the most die-hard of their party’s voters.
So you get a congressman who acts as a patsy for his party rather than a true public servant. You get state lawmakers who don’t accomplish much in Harrisburg but still get reelected repeatedly.
And you get important constitutional amendments and statewide referendums that are passed by a smaller percentage of voters, because unaffiliated and third-party candidates often aren’t tuned into primary elections in which they have no ability to vote for the candidates.
As Spotlight PA reported, the number of Pennsylvania voters not affiliated with either of the two major parties “rose by nearly 10% between 2016 and 2020 — outpacing gains made by Democrats and Republicans.”
For this and other reasons, Ballot PA — a project of the good-government group Committee of Seventy, in partnership with other organizations including Common Cause PA and this state’s League of Women Voters — has launched a campaign to repeal Pennsylvania’s closed primary process.
Ballot PA wants to see the passage of state Senate Bill 690 (the bill in the other chamber is House Bill 1369).
We do, too.
The legislation would allow unaffiliated voters to cast ballots in either the Republican or Democratic primary. (Third-party voters still would be excluded; we’d like to see potential solutions for them, too.) The bills were referred to their respective State Government Committees last May.
As Spotlight PA reported, a previous version of SB 690 “passed the state Senate in 2019, in a 42-8 vote, but was never brought up for a vote in the state House.”
That was before Republican state Rep. Bryan Cutler, of Drumore Township, became the speaker of the House (though he was the House majority leader at the time). We’d urge Cutler to ensure that the legislation gets serious consideration and a vote in the House this time around.
As for its current prospects in the Senate, Republican state Sen. Dave Argall — who now chairs the Senate State Government Committee — voted for the 2019 bill that would have opened Pennsylvania’s primaries to unaffiliated voters, Spotlight PA reported.
Argall told Spotlight PA that he still approves of the legislation but wants to learn more about its potential effects and about the views of his fellow committee members before bringing it up for a vote. We fervently hope this is not Harrisburg-speak for “the bill probably will die in committee.”
“Some states may allow Republicans to vote in the Democratic (primary), Democrats to vote in the Republican primary. That kind of free-for-all can lead to mischief,” Argall told Spotlight PA. “And so, you know, the devil is always going to be in the details.”
We have our own concerns about such crossover voting, though candidates themselves can “cross over” by cross-filing on both parties’ ballots in some races.
But as Spotlight PA pointed out, “The bill pending in Pennsylvania would not allow this.” Registered Democrats still would have to vote in the Democratic primary, and registered Republicans still would have to vote in the Republican primary. So our primaries would not be free-for-alls. They would simply be fairer.
In a column last month for LNP ‘ LancasterOnline, former Republican state Sens. Michael Brubaker and Gib Armstrong noted that with open seats for both governor and the U.S. Senate, as well as races for newly redrawn congressional and state legislative districts, the May 17 primary will be “the most consequential primary election in Pennsylvania history.”
They wrote: “Pennsylvania could decide control of the U.S. Senate or the U.S. House of Representatives. ... Republicans and Democrats will be able to weigh in on some of the most important elections in the country, but unaffiliated voters and independents will be shut out.”
Such voters “cannot take action to hold their elected officials accountable, and they cannot express their needs for representation,” Brubaker and Armstrong wrote, noting that “it’s no surprise that more and more Pennsylvanians are feeling disillusioned and disconnected from our institutions. Poll after poll shows that Pennsylvanians are frustrated with the political system. Too many Pennsylvanians pay for a system that shuts them out. Something needs to change.”
We couldn’t agree more.
We should want more voter participation in all of our elections. We should want candidates to be motivated to appeal to a broader mix of voters. We should want the rising number of unaffiliated and independent voters — many of them younger voters — to have their say. Opening primary elections to unaffiliated voters would accomplish those aims.
Lancaster/Lancaster Online | AP