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April 17, 2022

Open primaries would allow 1.1 million independent voters to take part in elections, lawmakers say

Pennsylvania is one of just nine states with a closed primary, meaning that only those affiliated with the major parties can vote for candidates in spring elections

Voters registered as Independents will not be eligible to vote in the May 17 primary in Pennsylvania, as the state is one of just nine that bars those without party affiliation from voting in primary elections. However, a bill that would open the state's primary elections to independent voters received a renewed push from lawmakers on Tuesday. 

The bill, which was originally introduced in 2021 by Erie County Sen. Dan Laughlin, would allow independent voters to vote for Republicans or Democrats on the state's primary ballot. It would continue to require those who are registered to either of the major parties to vote on their respective ballots. 

"Participation in Pennsylvania's primary elections is often very low," Laughlin said. "The low turnout can in part be attributed to voters feeling disenfranchised by the extremes of both major parties, who have taken control of our primary process. Giving more people the opportunity to have a voice in their representation is an important step toward ensuring democracy." 

Elections officers would ask the unaffiliated voter which party's primary they wish to vote in, and would temporarily be affiliated with that party in order to fill out a ballot. If that voter chooses to vote in a different party's primary in future elections, they would easily be able to change their decision with their county's election officer. 

The bill — and the concept of open primaries — has long had bipartisan support in Pennsylvania and throughout the country. Bucks County Sen. Maria Collett is a prime co-sponsor on Laughlin's bill, and said that she supports changing the state's closed primary status in order to increase voter participation and ensure that everyone's voice can be heard.

Laughlin, Collett, and other lawmakers spoke on Tuesday to help launch Ballot PA, a Committee of Seventy coalition aimed at repealing closed primaries in Pennsylvania. 

"The right to vote and participate in our democracy is at the very core of what it means to be an American," said Sen. Collett. "When we deny 16% of the voters have the ability to vote in open primaries, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to have a truly representative government and a responsive government." 

There are more than 1.1 million independent voters in Pennsylvania, according to David Thornburgh, president and CEO of Committee of Seventy. It is the fastest-growing part of the electorate, and they are currently shut out of voting in primary elections. When Sen. Laughlin first announced the legislation in 2020, this number was estimated at nearly 800,000 independents.

Opening Pennsylvania's primary is not a new fight. In 2021, Sen. Laughlin reintroduced legislation that was spearheaded by former Sen. Joe Scarnati, who originally introduced the bill in 2018, and again in 2019. 

While other states, including Georgia, Virginia, and Texas, have fully open primaries which allow any voter to vote for any candidate, Pennsylvania's bill would not impact registered Democrats or Republicans. Others, like New Jersey, are open to unaffiliated voters but do not allow registered Democrats and Republicans to vote across party lines in primaries. 

Election integrity and voting rights have remained a hot-button issue as Americans head into the 2022 election. On Thursday, the state Senate voted on two Republican-led bills that would eliminate private election funding and ban mail-in ballot drop boxes. Both bills passed out of the Senate and head to the state House of Representatives. 

Voting access and election security are also at the forefront of Senate and gubernatorial campaigns, just weeks ahead of the state's primary election. 

As Pennsylvania was one of the states whose impressive voter turnout impacted the outcome of the presidential election, former President Trump's campaign filed 24 lawsuits against the state, across nearly every facet of its election process, according to the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections report. 

All but two were won by the state, and less than 500 votes were disqualified as the Trump campaign continued to promote false allegations of widespread voter fraud during the general election. 

Senate Bill 690, which received a renewed push after its original introduction into the Senate, has a companion bill in the state's House of Representatives. The bills have been referred to respective committees, but have yet to receive hearings or votes.