Op-Ed: Repeal closed primaries in Pennsylvania

Posted 5/26/22

Up to 1.4 million registered independent voters in Pennsylvania were barred from participating in this momentous primary. Our state is one of only nine that prohibits independent voters from voting for candidate elections.

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Op-Ed: Repeal closed primaries in Pennsylvania


We just concluded the 2022 primary election that ended with a yet to be decided outcome for Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate Republican nominee with a difference of only 0.1% between Mehmet Oz and David McCormick. It was also the first election in Pennsylvania’s history that featured voting on open gubernatorial and Senate seats and on new congressional and legislative maps in the same primary. 

Yet up to 1.4 million registered independent voters in Pennsylvania were barred from participating in this momentous primary. Our state is one of only nine that prohibits independent voters from voting for candidate elections. Ballot PA, a project of the Committee of Seventy that I chair, wants to take Pennsylvania off that list and make the 2022 primary Pennsylvania’s last closed primary. 

Independents are the fastest growing segment of voters in the last five years, growing 31% faster than the GOP rolls and 30 times faster than the Democratic registration. Important and growing segments of the electorate - young voters, Indian American and Asian American voters - are overrepresented among independent voters. Yet they’re locked out of not just federal primaries, but in primary elections for important local, county and state primaries. This despite the fact that primary elections are funded with tax dollars from every Pennsylvanian regardless of their political affiliation - and cost $20 million each spring. It’s hard to imagine a more stark example of taxation without representation. 

So closed primaries are unfair to voters. But they’re also damaging to our democracy, whose central tenet is that better decisions are made when all voters are included and a majority expresses its wishes. In this primary, only about a third of registered Republican and Democratic Pennsylvania voters cast a vote in the highest-profile races in the primary election cycle. 

Republicans had eight candidates for governor crowding the stage. State Sen. Doug Mastriano ran first past the post with 44% of the primary vote, but he did it by winning the vote of only one in 6 registered Republicans.

In the Republican Senate race, a mere seven candidates battled each other. As of Tuesday afternoon, celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz clings to a narrow lead of just under 1,000 votes, or about 31% of Republican votes cast. But If Oz wins (or even if former hedge fund CEO Dave McCormick comes back to win), he'll win with the support of only about one in 8 of GOP registered voters. 

Attorney General Josh Shapiro won the Democratic gubernatorial race unopposed. But the Senate race was a battle between the party's progressive and moderate wings, with iconic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman emerging victorious. But while Fetterman won with almost 59% of the primary vote, it still only accounts for about one in five registered Democrats against establishment favorite Congressman Conor Lamb and progressive state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta. 

With three of the four marquee candidates elected by, respectively, 17%,12% and 18% of voters registered in their parties, none of these candidates can lay claim to being selected by a broad cross-section of voters, even from their own parties. They won by doubling down on their base of voters and slicing and dicing their opponents bases to win. 

Our current system guarantees that fewer voters participate, elections are less competitive and, ultimately, political polarization is reinforced, contributing to legislative gridlock and hampering good governance. Across the country, reforms are taking place to end closed primaries - and the Committee of Seventy, a longstanding community organization of corporate and community leaders based in Philadelphia believe that Pennsylvania should join 40 other states and do so as well.

Ballot PA supports bills in the Senate (SB690) and House (HB1369) with strong bipartisan support that would allow independent voters to choose the primary in which they’d participate. That is very similar to the systems that Massachusetts and New Hampshire have had for a long time, and Colorado and Maine recently adopted. A similar bill passed the state Senate in the last session with a vote of 42-8. Let’s not let Pennsylvania be the last to make this important change. 

To learn more about Ballot PA, and join with thousands of Pennsylvania voters to sign the petition in support of an open primary, visit BallotPA.org.

David Thornburgh

Chestnut Hill

Senior Advisor to the Committee of Seventy and Chair of BallotPA