Editor's Note

Editor’s Note: It may be time to rethink the role of the independent voter in primary elections

We ought to respect the unaffiliated voter’s choice to refuse to just ‘pick a team’

A ballot offering Democrat, Republican, or None of the Above

A ballot offering Democrat, Republican, or None of the Above donald_gruener/Getty

There’s a push to open Pennsylvania primaries to every registered voter – and I’m beginning to understand why. 

Because independent and third-party voters refuse to join either the Democratic or Republican parties, they are not allowed to participate in primary elections, in which voters can cast ballots for everything from members of the school board all the way up to the next president. Yet according to the state department, 15% of all registered voters – 1.3 million Pennsylvanians – identify as independent or third-party voters. 

Pennsylvania is only one of nine states that has this system. By contrast, deep blue New Jersey lets independents vote in primaries, along with such ruby red states like Georgia, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama. One could argue open primaries would force candidates to appeal to a wider swath of voters earlier on in the process, making them more about inclusion and less about ideological extremes. 

While these groups are reportedly the fastest-growing part of the electorate in the Keystone State, they’re still prohibited from having a voice in primaries, which can often decide who wins the general election.

David Thornburgh, chair of Ballot PA, a project of the Committee of Seventy, calls it “taxation without representation.” He said Democrats and Republicans should want open primaries just as much as unaffiliated voters. 

“You’ve got to knock on doors, talk to more people, do all of the stuff that we are encouraged to do in a healthy democracy,” Thornburgh said. “And then you get a broader cross-section of opinions about where we ought to stand or what values are important. You can’t afford to just talk to a small, concerted base of voters that – let’s just admit – are often among the most extreme voters in either party.”

There’s the argument that by making this change and letting the “other” vote, we could be opening the floodgates to even more political extremism. For example, candidates might actively seek out the most radical opponent to run against in order to push voters to the fringes of the ballot – like what Josh Shapiro did with his “warning” TV ad against Doug Mastriano. Shapiro likely homed in on the most far-right candidate on the GOP ticket, betting he would be the easiest to beat in November. 

I can also understand why proponents of closed primaries argue it strengthens the party’s ability to nominate a candidate of their choosing rather than have non-party members interfere. I’m not a member of the Lion’s Club or the Rotary Club, so I can’t cast a vote in their elections. The premise is the same. 

When it comes to primaries, some might say: “Why don’t they just pick a team?” After all, it’s as easy as checking a box, right? But there are 1 million or more Pennsylvania voters deliberately choosing to not pick a team. It seems to me that we ought to respect that choice – and make our democratic process more … democratic in the process.