It’s time to open Pennsylvania’s primary elections

by David Thornburgh
Posted 4/7/23

I recently spoke to an overflow crowd about the need to end closed primaries in Pennsylvania. I was blown away by the energy and sense of urgency.

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It’s time to open Pennsylvania’s primary elections


I recently spoke to an overflow crowd gathered by the League of Women Voters in Montgomery County about the need to end closed primaries in Pennsylvania. I was blown away by the energy and sense of urgency around this long-discussed voting rights issue. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. Montgomery County is home to nearly 100,000 independent voters, representing 14% of the total electorate. This is a sizable and growing segment of voters who have been unjustly denied their right to fully participate in our democracy, and our government is worse off for it.

 The numbers are similar across the state, with more than one million voters excluded from having a full say in choosing their leaders. Many don’t realize that Pennsylvania is an outlier among states, as only eight other states restrict the ability of independent voters to make their voices heard in primary elections. The effects of this disenfranchisement are significant, especially since so many races are effectively decided in the primary, especially at the state and local level.

Our research has shown that approximately 90% of all state legislative races in 2022 were effectively determined by the primary in 2022 because of the nature of how voters are sorted. Shutting these independent voices out of the process leads to a more polarized legislature and causes gridlock in Harrisburg at a time when we need our government to be able to effectively address a wide range of problems facing Pennsylvania.

This is a problem that will only grow worse as time goes on, as our research shows that independent voters are the fastest-growing segment of the Pennsylvania electorate, growing at a 5% faster rate than Republican registrations, and 23% faster than Democratic registrations. Independent voters are likely to be younger, with 50% under the age of 40, and most of the growth in independent voter registrations comes from the fastest growing parts of the state. Disenfranchisement of independent voters is already a serious problem, and if these trends persist, our elections will be far less representative of the voters’ true will with each successive cycle.

Pennsylvania has been growing slowly, at least compared to other states, to the point where we lost a congressional seat in the most recent redistricting cycle. Nearly all the population growth in the commonwealth over the most recent decennial census cycle came from communities of color, particularly the Latino and Asian-American communities that are well represented among the ranks of independent voters.

 According to research from the national Open Primaries organization, 40% of Asian American and 37% of Latino voters are independents. In Pennsylvania, Asian American voters are 85% more likely to register as independents and, Latino voters are 38% more likely. These growing communities deserve the opportunity to make their voices heard, and be able to choose candidates who reflect their values and truly represent them.

Opening up the primary process to all voters is also broadly popular with voters across the political spectrum. According to a recent poll conducted by Osage Research, allowing independents to vote in primaries is supported by 85% of progressive Democrats, 80% of Black voters, 75% of centrist Democrats, 69% of Trump Republicans and 67% of traditional GOP voters,  Our current system guarantees that fewer voters participate, and elections are less competitive. That only adds to political polarization, legislative gridlock and unrepresentative government. It is long past time that Pennsylvania, the birthplace of democracy, embrace the kinds of commonsense reforms to our electoral system that the people want to see, and that would make our democracy more reflective of the views of all Pennsylvanians.

BallotPA supports bi-partisan legislation that would allow independent voters to choose the primary in which they’d participate. This approach is very similar to the systems that Massachusetts and New Hampshire have had for many years, and were recently adopted in Colorado and Maine.

 To learn more about BallotPA, our campaign to end closed primaries, and join with thousands of other Pennsylvania voters to sign the petition in support of this important voting rights issue, visit

David Thornburgh is Chair of Open Primaries PA, an effort to open primary elections to the nearly one million Pennsylvania voters who currently can’t vote for candidates in primary elections.