HARRISBURG — Lawmakers and advocates who support opening Pennsylvania’s primary elections to over a million independent voters hope the legislature will take action this year, but at least one key senator stands in their way.
(Kate Huangpu of Spotlight PA)
Pennsylvania is one of nine states that has closed primaries, meaning only registered Democrats and Republicans can vote for candidates during partisan spring elections.
This means only those voters have a say in which candidates from those parties will face off in the November election, excluding the 1.2 million people in Pennsylvania who are registered to a third party or who are unaffiliated.
Good-government advocates and a small group of lawmakers have been trying to open Pennsylvania’s primary system for more than 20 years. Though the change has bipartisan support and has gained traction in recent legislative sessions, it has never passed both the state House and Senate.
With Democrats now in charge of the state House and new chairs in place for both chambers’ key election policy committees, open primary advocates have expressed hope that the new legislative landscape could be friendly to their cause.
However, whereas the state House stymied the bill in previous sessions, this time the state Senate is the potential roadblock.
There have been repeated bipartisan attempts to change Pennsylvania’s primary process dating to at least 1995. In recent years, an open primaries measure came closest to succeeding in 2019, when one passed the state Senate 42 to 8. The measure was sponsored by former state Sen. Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson), who was then the chamber’s president pro tempore and held considerable power.
However, state House leaders never brought the bill up for a vote.
The conflict over open primaries often revolves around disagreements over how partisan these elections should be.
Advocates for opening Pennsylvania’s primaries say that because unaffiliated and third-party voters pay taxes that fund the election system, it’s undemocratic to prohibit them from participating. They also argue that introducing this new pool of voters to primaries would decrease hyperpartisanship and create more competitive races.
David Thornburgh, chair of Ballot PA — an initiative by the good-government group Committee of 70 that supports opening Pennsylvania’s primaries — said both major parties have faced struggles that could be fixed by including independent voters.
In the 2022 primary, Republican voters resoundingly chose far-right state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin) to be their candidate for governor. However, in the November general election, Mastriano lost to now-Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, by nearly 15 points — the widest margin in a Pennsylvania gubernatorial race between nonincumbents in the past 80 years.
“The Republicans have nominated people for statewide office who have performed poorly … Democrats have been losing voters in the southwest and northeast,” Thornburgh said. “If I were in their shoes, I’d be thinking about what new and different on-ramps you might be constructing to bring more voters into the party.”
But opponents of open primaries argue that allowing voters from outside a party to participate in choosing its candidates dilutes the platform.
State Sen. Cris Dush (R., Centre) is one such opponent. He’s also the new chair of his chamber’s State Government Committee, which any open primary legislation would need to move through.
Last legislative session, the panel was chaired by state Sen. Dave Argall (R., Schuylkill), who voted for open primaries in 2019. Dush told Spotlight PA he has no plans to bring up an open primary bill in his committee.
“It’s like having the Baltimore Ravens be involved with the draft of the Pittsburgh Steelers,” Dush said.
Dush is best known for propagating false claims of election fraud in 2020 and pushing for an investigation of that year’s presidential election. This session, he has also sponsored bills that would require additional election audits and eliminate no-excuse mail voting.
State Sen. Dan Laughlin (R., Erie), a longtime supporter of opening Pennsylvania’s primaries, sponsored a bill that would have done so last session and says he plans to try again this year.
At the start of the legislative session, he and state Sen. Lisa Boscola (D., Lehigh) circulated a memo seeking support from their colleagues for a proposed bill that would allow unaffiliated voters to participate in primaries. It would exclude third-party voters.
Laughlin said he has spoken with Dush about the bill. While Dush doesn’t currently support open primaries, Laughlin said he thinks popular opinion could sway the chair.
“It’s not that big a deal for most of them,” Laughlin said of his colleagues in the state Senate.
“Cris is a team player, too. … I don’t believe it’s a live or die bill for him,” he added. “This is not a politically dangerous vote for a legislator to put up. No one’s going to get voted out of their district for open primaries.”
Laughlin said he’s had support from his colleagues in the state Senate in the past, pointing to the 2019 bill he co-sponsored that passed with 42 votes. He said including independent voters makes sense from a practical standpoint.
“When you head into a general election, that’s typically the voter you’re fighting over,” Laughlin said. “Republicans and Democrats both know in the fall you rely on your base and fighting for independents. It’s completely silly to not involve them in the primary process.”
State Rep. Scott Conklin (D., Centre), the new chair of his chamber’s State Government Committee, served for years as the panel’s minority chair and has consistently expressed support for the bill.
Conklin introduced his own legislation that would open the primaries last session and said that he would support the bill again if it appeared in his committee.
When asked about its viability in the state Senate, Conklin acknowledged that Dush may be an obstacle.
“We all have our personalities and backgrounds and views. Sen. Dush is an election denier [but] he gets elected just like every one of us gets elected,” Conklin said. “I’m hoping to be able to work with him.”
Multiple state House representatives have announced plans to introduce open primary bills this year. In February, state Reps. Jared Solomon (D., Philadelphia) and Chris Rabb (D., Philadelphia) released a joint co-sponsorship memo announcing plans for a bill that would allow unaffiliated voters to participate in primaries. State Rep. Marla Brown (R., Lawrence) echoed that pledge in a separate co-sponsorship memo released in March.
Making it out of committee is only one of the first steps for a bill. It must also be called up by the leaders of each chamber, who have discretion about which legislation is formally considered and voted on.
A spokesperson for state House Speaker Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia) said it was “too early to weigh in,” and a spokesperson for state Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R., Indiana) didn’t comment by press time.
If a bill is approved by a majority of lawmakers in both the state House and Senate, it will be up to Shapiro to either sign it into law or veto it. Shapiro has not taken a public stance on the issue, and a spokesperson for the administration declined to comment for this story.
Thornburgh said he hopes an open primary bill finally sees success this legislative session — and not just because of the new political dynamics in Harrisburg.
“There’s a presidential election next year and there’s going to be increasing pressure and interest to tighten up some of the loose ends in the election process that were revealed in 2020 and I think this very well could be a part of that,” Thornburgh said. “The tide is coming in again, it’s reaching higher and it might just reach in all the way.”
WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.