Line of Voters

The Issue

Pennsylvania’s closed primary elections shut out more than one million voters from important elections every year.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of State, 1,228,000 of 8,610,000 voters were registered as unaffiliated with political party or with a third party in November 2018. This segment of the state’s electorate has been increasing for years, consistent with a national trend of voters identifying as independents. But in Pennsylvania, these voters are prevented from participating in the local, state and federal primaries that are likely the most important elections in their communities.

From local council or commissioner to the U.S. presidency, more than one out of every eight registered voters are barred from having a say in a critical part of the electoral process. This occurs despite the fact that primaries, which cost ~$20 million each spring, are funded with tax dollars from every Pennsylvanian regardless of their political affiliation.

This system guarantees that fewer voters participate, elections are less competitive and, ultimately, political polarization is reinforced, contributing to legislative gridlock and hampering good governance.

Open Primaries PA believes in:

  • Fairness in representation: More than one million Pennsylvanians are shut out of primary elections that often determine who represents them.
  • Accountability in elections: Public officials should be accountable to the electorate at large, not party bases.
  • No taxation without representation: Primary elections are funded with tax dollars from every Pennsylvanian regardless of they can participate.

How do our elections work now?

Every spring, Pennsylvania hosts primary elections in which Democratic and Republican (“major party”) candidates at the local, state and federal level compete for their party’s nomination. Major party voters can only vote for candidates in their party’s primary -- Democratic voters for Democratic candidates; Republican voters for Republican candidates -- with winners facing off in the fall general election. In this way, primaries are like electoral “playoffs” to appear in the general election “finals.”

Independent voters (those unaffiliated with a political party) and third-party (e.g., Libertarian, Green) voters, however, are not allowed to cast ballots in the spring primaries, preventing them from participating in what are, in many parts of the state, the elections that determine who ultimately wins public office.

The Solution

Open Primaries PA supports ending the closed primary process in Pennsylvania. But there are numerous other election systems to consider, and we encourage an informed debate around which would best serve the voters and the Commonwealth.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are six types of primary elections, all of which are more inclusive and include a broader swath of the electorate than the closed primary system used in Pennsylvania. Several variations include:

  • Open to Unaffiliated Voters – 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 party registration, uses the same ballot listing all candidates. The top two vote getters in each race, regardless of party, advance to the general election.

Senate Bill 300, introduced by Senator Joe Scarnati, proposes a primary election open to unaffiliated voters for Pennsylvania, which would allow 750,000 currently disenfranchised voters to cast ballots in important spring primaries. Open Primaries PA supports this legislation and urges members of both parties to sign on.

Closed primaries have been used in the Commonwealth for generations. But our politics have changed; our communities have changed; our voters have changed. So should our elections.