Campaigns & Elections

5 former PA governors back repeal of closed primaries

All of the state’s living former governors say unaffiliated voters should be able to vote in party primaries.

Former Pennsylvania Govs. Ed Rendell, Mark Schweiker, Tom Ridge, Tom Corbett and Tom Wolf.

Former Pennsylvania Govs. Ed Rendell, Mark Schweiker, Tom Ridge, Tom Corbett and Tom Wolf. Wikimedia Commons

All of Pennsylvania’s living former governors are calling for an end to closed primaries in Pennsylvania. 

In an open letter published on Monday, five former Pennsylvania governors – Tom Ridge, Mark Schweiker, Ed Rendell, Tom Corbett and Tom Wolf – said it is “long past time” for the commonwealth to join 43 other states that currently allow independent voters to vote in party primaries. 

“As former Pennsylvania Governors, we are writing today in full support of current legislation in both the House and Senate that would repeal closed primaries and bring 1.2 million independent voters back into the primary election process,” the five former governors wrote in a letter circulated by Ballot PA, a coalition that backs open primaries. 

Pennsylvania’s primary elections are currently limited to members of each political party, meaning only registered Democrats can vote in Democratic primaries and only registered Republicans can vote in Republican primaries. However, all voters can vote on constitutional amendments, ballot questions and special elections that are held during primary election cycles. 

Citing growing extremism, fairness and an opportunity to expand – rather than extinguish – the state’s political parties, the gubernatorial quintet urged lawmakers to repeal closed primaries outright.

“When we were elected Governor, we pledged to govern on behalf of all Pennsylvanians – Democrats, Republicans, independents, those who voted for us, and those who voted against us,” the letter continued. “But our political system has changed over the last decade or two. Primary elections are often decided by a few more extreme voters. Candidates elected by those more extreme voters don’t have as much incentive to engage in the compromise and give and take that is so essential to effective governing. Adding independent voters to the primary mix will help.”

State lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have joined the push to repeal the state’s closed primaries. In the state House, Democratic state Rep. Jared Solomon and Republican state Rep. Marla Brown sponsored bills that would allow voters unaffiliated with a political party to choose a party primary to vote in. Similar legislation has been introduced in the state Senate by GOP state Sen. Dan Laughlin and Democratic state Sen. Lisa Boscola. 

Solomon and Brown wrote in a July op-ed that their bills would mirror laws in Massachusetts and New Hampshire – two states that have long allowed independent voters to choose the primary in which they wish to vote. 

“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,” the two state representatives wrote. 

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Pennsylvania is one of seven states that limits primaries to registered party members. The six other states that hold closed primaries are Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Nevada, New Mexico and New York. Additionally, some states have partially closed primaries, which allow political parties to choose whether or not to allow unaffiliated voters to participate in primaries, while others have partially open primaries, which can differ from state to state. 

Lawmakers on the House State Government Subcommittee on Campaign Finance & Elections held a hearing on open primary legislation in June. The hearing included testimony from two county elections officials who warned that opening primaries to unaffiliated voters could put added pressure on local election administrators, according to The Daily Item

To date, no legislative committee in the General Assembly has held a vote on the bills sponsored by Solomon, Brown or Laughlin to repeal the state’s closed primary system.

The full letter signed by the governors can be read below.

NEXT STORY: Five for Friday: Summer Storylines