Pennsylvania has closed primaries. Election experts are urging change.
Greg Young considers himself a moderate conservative – not a Republican.
Nonetheless, the 59-year-old accountant from South Lebanon Township said he’s voted “steadily” for over 40 years.
“I registered as soon as I could,” he said. “One of my best memories as a kid with a May birthday was, I was able to register and vote.”
Young first voted as a teenage Reaganite, but soon diverged from the GOP during the Clinton years, as he “shifted moderate to most folks.”
He now finds himself reluctantly performing the same voter roll acrobatics every year in order to participate in Lebanon County’s elections — largely dominated by Republicans.
“I’ve taken to being Independent for nine months from early spring,” Young said. “When I see things heating up in the primary, I’ll send in a change of ballot and become a Republican for primary season. Then, in early June, I’ll go back to Independent.”
Pennsylvania is one of nine states that prevent Independent and unaffiliated voters from participating in primaries. There’s an effort in the state House to change that.
But right now, Young said, “It shuts you out of the discussion in the spring primary and kind of hands you a slate that those who are registered in a party pick for you to choose in the fall.”
During last year’s midterm elections, Young registered as a Republican to both support a friend running for county commissioner, and to “choose someone other than Doug Mastriano and [Mehmet] Oz.”
He said the move caused problems with his county elections office.
“I have two younger children, and they’re both registered Democrats. They must have looked at my house and they sent me a Democrat ballot.”
The issue was resolved within a few days, but Young remains frustrated by the need to constantly re-register for a political party he doesn’t fully believe in.
“I know I’m probably driving my county office crazy, but it’s worth the time and effort to me to take these steps and have my voice heard,” he said.
Young is one of 1.2 million Pa. voters who can’t cast ballots in primaries because they’re registered as Independents.
Two bills have been introduced in the state House to create “semi-open” primaries, which would allow unaffiliated voters to vote in the primary of their choice. Those registered with a political party would still only be able to vote in that party’s primary.
On Thursday, the House State Government Committee hosted about a dozen election security experts who supported the proposals.
One was Jeremy Gruber of voter advocacy group Open Primaries.
He said each Pennsylvanian is entitled to participate, since Pa. spends more than $50 million on primaries.
“They’re taxpayer-funded; they’re held in public buildings with public employees; they’re administered by the Secretary of the Commonwealth. These are public elections,” Gruber said.
Gruber was joined by David Thornburgh, who chairs Ballot PA, a project of the government watchdog group Committee of 70.
He said that 88% of registered Independents in Pa. said they want to take part in the primaries, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center.
“That should dispel once and for all the myth that Independents really don’t care.”
Thornburgh directly addressed lawmakers.
“When you answer to a broader coalition of voters, not just the [small number] who show up in primaries,” he said, “they’re going to make for a better culture of governing and ultimately to help you do your jobs in representing them.”
Some House lawmakers opposed the idea of open primaries, including Republican Rep. Dawn Keefer from York County.
She said lawmakers must first “fix” Pa.’s current election code, and took aim at Act 77.
“We need to hammer that out … so that we can actually, or would be even able to have the capacity to, roll out something like this to make sure that we’re not adding further chaos into our already chaotic system,” she said.
Democratic Rep. Maureen Madden, serving parts of Monroe County, supported the bills.
“For all the issues that Act 77 may still have, Pa. voters embraced the no-excuse mail-in voting with open arms. We came out to vote in numbers never seen before,” Madden said. “And I expect that Pa. voters will react quite similarly to open primaries.”
The committee has yet to vote on either of the two bills.
Both must be approved by the committee, which would then send them to a vote on the House floor.
If approved, the bills would be considered by the Republican-controlled state Senate.