May Primary 3.jpg

Dr. Karen Roberts signs in to vote with Nick Siegert and Allan Eustis at the First United Methodist Church during the primary election day voting on Tuesday, May 18, 2021.

Pennsylvania’s closed political primary system disenfranchises 1.2 million voters and empowers the most extreme voices in the two major parties at the expense of moderates, according to David Thornburgh, the former head of the Philadelphia-based good government organization Committeee of Seventy.

Thornburgh, the son of the late Gov. Richard Thornburgh, was in Lancaster on Tuesday to tout a statewide campaign to change the commonwealth’s election laws to let independent voters cast ballots in primary elections. Currently, only voters registered to a party can participate in that party’s primary election.

In a nutshell, Thornburgh is leading the Committee of Seventy’s campaign, BallotPA.org, to give independents the option of casting a vote in the party primary of their choice. Voters already registered with a party would not be able to choose which primary to vote in. 

“It’s what I like to call ‘Pennsylvania pragmatism,’” Thornburgh told a group of community leaders who gathered at the Hamilton Club. “It sends a message to voters who have chosen not to align with a party that their votes matter.”

Getting independent voters involved in primaries is a win for the major political parties too, Thornburgh said, as it gives them a chance to appeal to voters who may one day decide to ditch their independent status.

“If you don’t invite them in, you can’t hear from them,” he said.

And open primaries reward the “governing wings” of both parties, Thornburgh said, helping politicians who understand that compromise and cooperation is important to getting things done in Harrisburg and Washington.

“If you’re in politics to exercise your Twitter finger, then this isn’t for you,” he said.

BallotPA is supported by several good government groups, including Common Cause PA and the League of Women Voters PA.

The campaign supports Senate Bill 690, sponsored by Sen. Dan Laughlin, R-Erie County, in the current session; the House companion bill is HB 1369 by Rep. Christopher Quinn, R-Delaware County. Both bills are currently in committee awaiting further action. A version of the legislation passed the Senate by a 42-8 vote in 2019 but died in the House.

The counter-argument to open primaries as a tonic for extreme partisanship was the subject of a 2018 story in The Philadelphia Inquirer, which quoted a 2014 academic paper that concluded, “We find that the openness of a primary election has little, if any, effect on the extremity of the politicians it produces.” Independent voters, the story explained, are just as likely to hold strong partisan views as registered Democrats or Republicans.

CLARIFICATION: BallotPA is a project of the Committee of Seventy.

What to Read Next