News & Politics

Opinion: A million reasons to open up primaries in Pennsylvania

A bipartisan effort from two state House lawmakers seeks to end the disenfranchisement of Independent voters in Pennsylvania primary elections.

State Reps. Jared Solomon (left) and Marla Brown (right).

State Reps. Jared Solomon (left) and Marla Brown (right). The Pennsylvania House of Representatives

In these divided times, it feels increasingly difficult to find common political ground on just about anything. But we – a conservative Republican from Lawrence County and a Democrat from Philadelphia – have come together to support a commonsense proposal whose time has come. It’s time to end closed primaries and bring back independent voters to primary elections.

Pennsylvania is one of only nine states that disenfranchises independent voters during primary elections and it is time to fix this injustice. That is why we have introduced legislation – House Bills 976 and 979 – to ensure that all of our citizens have an equal opportunity to make their voices heard in the state where democracy was born.

There are approximately 1.1 million Pennsylvania voters who are unaffiliated with any party and it is unfair that they have been deprived for so long of the opportunity to select their leaders. Given the nature of our system and the realities of political geography, the vast majority of elections are functionally decided by the primaries. This is especially true at the local level, where the impact of elected officials’ decisions is most likely to be directly felt by their constituents. 

The basic principle of democracy is simple – every person’s voice counts equally, but our closed primary system flies directly in the face of this simple, intuitive logic. Not only are independent voters systematically shut out of the processes by which important decisions that will affect their lives are made, they also pay taxes that go to directly support the elections that they are prohibited from participating in – adding insult to injury. “No taxation without representation” was a rallying cry of the American Revolution and it is a travesty that we have designed a system here in Pennsylvania that imposes that exact unfair burden on its citizens. 

There are certain demographic groups that tend to register as independents at higher rates than the population at large, removing valuable voices from the conversation about how we are to be governed. One such group is veterans. Roughly half of all veterans are registered as independents and it is particularly appalling that brave men and women who sacrificed to serve their country and protect democracy are denied a say in their governance when they come home.

Independent voters are also likely to be younger with nearly 50% of all registered independents being 40 years old or younger. Historically, younger voters have turned out at lower rates than other groups, and if our democracy is to remain vibrant for generations to come, we need to engage the rising generations with the process. Denying them the right to participate in primary elections will only breed distrust in the system and further degrade democracy by removing their voices from the process. 

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.

Fortunately, this serious problem has a very simple solution, one that has been demonstrated to be effective in multiple other states. Our legislation would allow independent voters to choose the primary in which they’d like to 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. 

This is not a partisan issue – nor should it be. It is a matter of basic fairness, which is why we were willing to work together across the aisle to advance this critically important reform. We believe that this policy is a no-brainer and research suggests that the vast majority of Pennsylvanians agree. 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. 

It is clear what Pennsylvanians want. Attempts to repeal closed primaries have advanced in the past, but never made it over the finish line. We believe that this is the year we will empower voters and give independent voters a voice.