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Closed primary elections disenfranchise independent voters, veterans

RADNOR, Pa. – Jennifer Bullock has stood outside polling places on primary Election Day for the last 15 years with a sign reading “I can’t vote. Ask me why.”

The answer Bullock gives to voters who often stop and ask is that she is one of 1.3 million Pennsylvania voters who are not affiliated with the major parties and cannot vote in primary elections.

“I am like other independents who don’t want to be forced to join a party to participate in the primary, which is essentially the first round of elections that often decide who the ultimate winner is,” said Bullock, director of Independent Pennsylvanians, which advocates for unaffiliated and third-party voters.

Bullock testified Tuesday at a hearing of the Pennsylvania House State Government Committee on legislation that would allow unaffiliated voters to cast primary votes on either the Democratic or Republican ballots.

Sources differ, but Pennsylvania is one of between nine and 11 states with closed primaries in which only voters registered as a Democrat or Republican may vote.

Other states allow voters to cast primary ballots through a variety of systems — ranging from registering with a party at the polls to choosing which party’s ballot to vote on in the voting booth, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Chris Quinn, R-Delaware, said that as Pennsylvania becomes increasingly politically polarized, primary elections more often determine the winners of political races.

The result is that unaffiliated voters are unable to participate meaningfully in taxpayer-funded elections, Quinn said during the hearing at Villanova University.

The committee hearing on House Bill 1369 is the furthest legislation on open primary elections has advanced, Quinn said. A similar bill passed in the Senate in 2019 but did not advance in the House. John Opdycke, president of Open Primaries, said allowing independent voters to participate in partisan primaries has a number of benefits for democracy.

A University of Southern California study of election turnout in all 50 states found that in states with closed primaries, not only was primary election turnout lower, but general election participation was also up to 20 percent lower, Opdycke said.

“One of the things that the researchers discovered was that voters who are not communicated with during the primary season have less incentive, less knowledge to turn out in the general election,” Opdycke said.

Another study from Arizona State University analyzing the social media networks of independent voters found that they were more politically diverse than Democrats and Republicans. “Bringing independents into the equation, I think, creates much more opportunity for bridging the partisan divide at both the legislative level and the community level,” Opdycke said.

Closed primaries disproportionately affect veterans, said former state Auditor General Jack Wagner, who is co-chairperson of Ballot PA Vets.'

Veterans tend not to view themselves as representatives of one party or the other and are more likely to be unaffiliated voters, Wagner, who is a Vietnam veteran, said.

According to the Pew Research Center, 49 percent of veterans identified as politically independent, compared to 42 percent of eligible voters generally.

Marilyn Kelly-Cavotta, an Army veteran and director of veteran and military services at Moravian University, said that before every primary she finds herself explaining that independents cannot participate. It’s especially difficult for veterans who have made sacrifices for their country.

“You must follow the orders of the Commander-in-Chief, but you cannot select the one that you want to see on the ballot,” Kelly-Cavotta said.

While the bill has bipartisan sponsorship, support for ending closed primary elections was not universal among members of the State Government Committee.

Rep. Paul Schemel, R-Franklin, repeatedly questioned those testifying about why voters who are not members of a party should choose a party’s candidates.

“Every citizen has the right to vote in every primary, just like every veteran does as a citizen. In order to vote in the primary, which is the selection of political party nominees in Pennsylvania, they have to register with the party.

“If they choose not to do that, that’s fine. That’s their choice, but they have the same right as everyone else,” Schemel said.

Rep. Jared Solomon, D-Philadelphia, said Pennsylvania’s treatment of independent voters and candidates is openly hostile.

“We label them all as ‘other.’ That’s how we value independent voices in Pennsylvania. We can do a lot better. We can empower those voices,” Solomon said.

Quinn said he’s hopeful the legislation will be considered in the fall. He said House Republican leadership is interested in the testimony from the hearing, which includes written testimony from Diana Dekey of the League of Women Voters, Ballot PA Vets Co-chairperson, and former Cumberland County Commissioner Barbara Cross, and former Pittsburgh Steelers halfback Rocky Bleier, who is a Vietnam veteran.


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