Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

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As you may have noticed from the onslaught of political ads, it’s spring, it’s a midterm year, and Pennsylvania has the May 17 primary election on the mind.

Every eligible voter can weigh in on ballot questions about changes to the city charter. But unaffiliated and minority party voters — about 13% of people registered to vote in Philly — can’t weigh in on the high-profile contests for governor and U.S. Senate currently roiling both the Democratic and Republican parties.

That’s because Pennsylvania is one of nine U.S. states with totally “closed primaries,” which require voters to be registered as a member of a given party to vote in that party’s races.

This has a big impact on young voters. About 21% of Pa. voters aged 18 to 34 are not registered Democratic or Republican, according to state data. (If you want, there’s still time to switch your party; the registration deadline for this primary is May 2.)

Some groups and legislators want to change Pennsylvania’s system. The Committee of 70, a Philly-based good government nonprofit, recently formed a new coalition to push for the switch.

Called “Ballot PA,” it was prompted in part by the historic nature of this year’s primary, according to David Thornburgh, the former CEO of Committee of 70 who is chairing the new group.

“It’s the first time in the 235-year history of the commonwealth that those who can vote get to vote on an open governor seat, open Senate seats, new congressional districts and new legislative districts,” Thornburgh told Billy Penn.

What would an open primary look like?

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to open primaries. The National Conference of State Legislatures categorizes the different types like this:

  • Open: Voters can choose privately which primary they’d like to vote in.
  • Open to unaffiliated voters: Unaffiliated voters can participate in any one party primary, but voters registered with a party must vote in their own party’s races.
  • Partially open: Voters can vote in any one primary (including crossing party lines) so long as they publicly declare their ballot choice or (depending on the state) switch their party registration on Election Day.
  • Partially closed: Political parties can choose at the beginning of an election cycle whether they will allow voters not affiliated with their party to vote in their primary races.
  • Top-two: Primary candidates from all parties are listed on the same ballot. Everyone uses this ballot to vote, and the two candidates with the most votes in each race advance to the general election.

The Ballot PA website notes that the group supports a repeal of the closed primary system in general, but acknowledges the different types of systems and “encourage[s] an informed debate around which would best serve the voters and the Commonwealth.”

What would it take for Pa. to adopt an open primary system?

Establishing open primaries would require state-level legislation amending the election code, passed by both chambers of the legislature and signed by the governor.

Two pieces of legislation have been introduced to that end: Senate Bill 690 and House Bill 1369. The nearly identical bills were introduced by bipartisan groups of legislators and referred to their respective chambers’ state government committees in May 2021.

If adopted, these bills would implement a system like No. 2 above. It wouldn’t allow Democrats to vote in Republican primaries, or vice versa.

The Ballot PA initiative isn’t dedicated to one specific form of open primaries, but the group supports the current legislation. “[It] may not be as ambitious as some folks would like it to be,” Thornburgh said, “but we think this is doable.”

A note: this isn’t the first time Harrisburg has considered the open primaries issue. Former state Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, a Republican, introduced a very similar bill in June 2019. It passed the Senate in a 42-8 but stalled in the Pa. House.

What are the pros and cons of open primaries?

Thornburgh offered several arguments in favor of adopting an open primary system. The first is straight up fairness.

“These are all folks that pay taxes to help support elections,” he said. “This feels like the most egregious example of taxation without representation that you could possibly imagine.”

Closed primaries also typically yield more polarized results, Thornburgh said, suggesting open primaries could yield candidates more willing to work across the aisle.

Others argue the open system disincentivizes “becoming team players“, or can lead to political parties being taken over from the outside.

Completely open primary systems — which allow any voter to participate in any one party’s primary, even if they’re a registered member of a different party — can also invite bad actors, said Nicolas O’Rourke, Pennsylvania director for organizing for the Working Families Party.

Groups engaged in anti-democracy efforts to restrict ballot access sometimes advocate for open primary systems, O’Rourke said, as “a power grab under the guise of democracy,” so they can assert influence across party lines.

“We have general elections where everybody, period, can come out and vote however they wish to vote,” he said. “Why would it be that primaries — which are the time for the party and the supporters of the party to pick their person who they want to have represented — why would that be opened up to persons who are actively against or have no support of that party in general?”

O’Rourke said he couldn’t comment specifically on the system proposed in S.B. 690 and H.B. 1369, since he wasn’t familiar with legislation.

How many more people could vote in primaries if Pa. adopted this system?

As of Monday, 10.4% of registered voters in Pennsylvania — about 900k — are not affiliated with a political party, per state data. Another 4.3% of voters, about 375k people, are affiliated with a political party other than the Democratic or Republican parties.

In Philly, those proportions are very slightly smaller — 9.5% unaffiliated (99.7k), and 3.2% affiliated with a party other than the major two (33.5k). Around 11% of unaffiliated Pennsylvania voters and 8.9% of third-party voters live in Philadelphia.

In their current form, S.B. 690 and H.B. 1369 would open primaries up to the 911,411 unaffiliated voters in Pennsylvania. The bills don’t address voters registered under third parties.

What if I’m unaffiliated and want to vote in this year’s primary on May 17?

As of now, if you want to vote for candidates in the May primary to determine who will appear on the November ballot, you need to register with a party, and you’ll only be able to vote in that party’s races. Voters with no affiliation can still go to the polls, but you’ll only be able to vote on the ballot questions amending the City Charter.

Even if you’ve already registered to vote, you can change your party affiliation ahead of the primary.

The deadline to do that is May 2, which is also the final day to register to vote, if you haven’t already. You can make the party affiliation change using Pennsylvania’s online voter registration system.

Asha Prihar is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She has previously written for several daily newspapers across the Midwest, and she covered Pennsylvania state government and politics for The...