By John Finnerty
More than 1 million registered voters in Pennsylvania will be barred from casting a ballot today because the state allows only registered Democrats and Republicans to participate in the primary election.
Pennsylvania not only shuts out independent and minor party members, but taxpayers foot the $20 million bill for primary elections.
“It’s like taxation without representation,” said Robert Small, a Green Party member from Montgomery County.
More people are disenfranchised by the closed primary than would be impacted by the state’s controversial voter identification law.
The Commonwealth Court judge who put a temporary halt to the voter ID requirements said that the upper-most estimate of people disenfranchised by the law was about 750,000.
Small said that he went to the polls during a primary election once because there was a referendum question on the ballot. The election judge initially tried to turn him away, Small said.
“I said, ‘since I can’t vote could you give me a statement that says I don’t have taxes taken for the election you won’t let me vote in?’” Small said.
The number of registered voters who do not belong to one of the main political parties has increased 29 percent in the last decade. Over that time, the number of people who registered as independents or minor party members increased by 247,000. In the same period, the state Republican Party only added 120,000 people.
Pennsylvania is one of just 11 states that operate closed primaries, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures. The others are Delaware, Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York and Wyoming.
“These are not private party matters,” said Jennifer Bullock, founder of Independent Pennsylvanians, a group fighting for voting rights for voters who do not want to be affiliated with a political party. “This is an important first round of the elections.”
Bills in the House and Senate would provide a form of open primaries. But neither is up to snuff because they both simply tinker with the existing system, Bullock said. One measure would allow independents to vote by opting to become a Democrat or Republican for the day. Another would have independent voters sign affidavits that they do not belong to a political party before voting.
“We do not support anything that creates hurdles for independents,” Bullock said.
Her group would like to see Pennsylvania enact the “top two” model currently used in four states. In those primaries, all candidates are put on the ballot and the top vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, are selected to run in the general election.
Bullock said that party officials suggest some voters would try to sabotage the results by voting for weaker candidates in the opposition party.
“They don’t get it,” she said. “Independent voters don’t think that way. Only (political partisans) think that way.”
Barry Kauffman at the government accountability organization Common Cause said that if the state is not willing to open the primaries, then there ought to be consideration given to whether the political parties should pay for the primaries, he said.
Kauffman said the exclusionary aspects of the primaries are harmful to democracy.
Because the most partisan voters are most likely to participate, the primary process helps ideologically extreme candidates get elected.
“Then when it comes time to do the people’s business, it makes governing from the center all the more difficult,” Kauffman said. “And most people are somewhere in the center.”
The fact that more people are growing weary of partisan games has contributed to the increase in independent voters, Bullock said. And truly open primaries would only accelerate the growth in independents. Party affiliations are inflated by including people who only describe themselves as Democrats or Republicans in order to vote in the primaries, she said.
Finnerty reports from Harrisburg for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.’s Pennsylvania newspapers, including The Meadville Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.