Bill would give unaffiliated voters primary voice
Although all of the state senators in the Times News area are on board with a bipartisan proposal to kick open Pennsylvania’s closed primaries doors, the legislation faces uncertainty in the state House of Representatives from those who don’t buy into the idea.
As it is now, Pennsylvania as a closed primary state means that just registered Democrats and Republicans can vote in primary elections. If one of the third parties is able to get a ballot position, its voters are able to vote, but only for that party’s candidate or candidates.
For those of us who are registered nonpartisan (no party), independent or a member of a third party which has no ballot position, we are locked out of primary voting.
Senate Bill 300, which passed the Senate 42-8 and is now being considered by the House’s State Government Committee, aims to change this by allowing the state’s 800,000 unaffiliated voters to cast ballots in primaries.
One of the bill’s co-sponsors, Sen. John Yudichak, D-Carbon, favors the concept. “The election process in Pennsylvania should be about empowering voters and creating greater accessibility for more voices to be heard,” Yudichak said. “As a co-sponsor, I want all voices to shape state government including independent voices that have for far too long been silenced in primary elections.”
Rep. Doyle Heffley, R-Carbon, is opposed to the change and said that primaries should remain as party elections. He has serious concerns about this or ``any other proposal that might jeopardize the integrity of our election process.”
Heffley went on to say: ``The contention that the current system is discouraging voter participation is misleading. We have seen near-record voter turnout in recent elections. I compare it to a football team -- you wouldn't want the Giants choosing the starting lineup for the Eagles.”
State Rep. Jerry Knowles, R-Carbon and Schuylkill, said he is still on the fence and wants to hear more from constituents before he decides which way to vote if and when the measure comes out of committee.
“Remember that the purpose of a primary election is for each party to choose its candidates.” Knowles said. ``An open primary would dilute the parties’ responsibility to nominate; on the other hand, it would also enable a growing segment of the voting population to participate in the primary process. I recognize there are positives and negatives on both sides of this debate. For that reason, I will continue to reach out to constituents for input.”
In the primaries, only registered Republicans can vote for Republican candidates, while those registered as Democrats must vote only for Democratic candidates. Under this bill, this will not change.
It’s a different story in the general election; every registered voter can cast a ballot, and he or she can vote for whomever he or she wishes, regardless of party affiliation. This is also true of non-affiliated registered voters.
Legislative interest in allowing unaffiliated voters to get in on the action in the primaries was renewed after the 2016 presidential primaries. Because of the intense interest in the Republican primary in particular, with the emergence of Donald Trump as one of the leading candidates, a significant number of voters changed parties or designations. Some changed from Democrat to Republican either to vote for or against Trump. That was also true for non-affiliated registered voters.
The bill is getting serious bipartisan backing from not only legislators but also from highly visible ex-party officials from both sides of the aisle.
A recent statewide op-ed column penned jointly by T.J. Rooney of Bethlehem, state Democratic Party chair from 2003-2010, and Alan Novak of Chester County, former state Republican chair from 1996-2002, urges support for the bill because, they said, ``it will make for better political parties, better candidates and better outcomes.”
The bill is sponsored by Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati, R-Jefferson. Aside from Yudichak, co-sponsors include Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, and Lisa Boscola, D-Lehigh and Northampton. Sen. David Argall, R-Schuylkill, also voted in favor of the legislation.
Scarnati believes broadening primary participation would enormously increase voter turnout. Turnout in primaries has been notoriously low, especially when there are few high-profile races such as there were earlier this year.
Most of us unaffiliated voters are treated as outsiders in the primaries. We ask, however, if we are paying for the primaries with our tax dollars, why shouldn’t the primaries be open to all registered voters?
By Bruce Frassinelli | firstname.lastname@example.org