In Pennsylvania, Independent Voters Take Center Stage

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Living and working in Pennsylvania this past election cycle has been reminiscent of a 1985 Sally Field Oscar acceptance moment: “You like me. Right now, you like me.” With Florida now a deeper red, Pennsylvania looms as perhaps the most important swing state in the 2024 election.

Native Pennsylvanians like myself are still getting used to the idea. Sure, we’ve called ourselves the Keystone State forever – but excluding stone masons, even most long-time Pennsylvanians have no idea what a keystone is or why you’d want to be one.

The 2022 election made it clear, however, that Pennsylvania has earned its spot on the arch. In a race that cost over $312 million, populist Democratic lieutenant governor John Fetterman beat Republican Mehmet Oz by a convincing margin to secure Senate control for the Democrats. In the other marquee race, state attorney general Josh Shapiro obliterated the Trump-endorsed Republican candidate, state Sen. Doug Mastriano, by almost fifteen points – perhaps the most visceral defeat suffered by the Grand Old Party’s Trump faction anywhere in the country.

So some post-election analysis is probably in order to figure out what the heck went on in Pennsylvania. And, true to form, every political podcaster and prognosticator has taken his turn at it. But one message seems to have eluded most observers: the critical role that Independent voters played in the outcome. While Pennsylvania’s not the only place where this dynamic was overlooked, the impact of the state’s 1.1 million independent voters – the Rodney Dangerfield of voter segments – doesn’t neatly fit the convenient red team–blue team narrative that the political class clings to.

Independent voters now swing close elections in Pennsylvania. Almost all Democrats vote for Democrats, and the same goes for Republicans. But in 2016, independents went +7 for Donald Trump (a race he won by 44,000 votes). In 2020, they went +8 for Joe Biden (when he won by 82,000 votes). That’s a swing of 15 points. In 2022, Pennsylvania independents voted for Josh Shapiro by almost a 2:1 margin (64 to 33) and for John Fetterman by 58 to 38. And while exit polling doesn’t offer much insight on state legislative races, it’s likely that Independent voters swung tight races in those chambers as well (an incumbent GOP state house member, Todd Stephens, lost by less than 50 votes).

Granted, because of redistricting and population sorting, there weren’t that many tight legislative races: 90% were effectively decided in the primary, meaning that those races had an uncontested general election, or it was decided by more than 10 points. But that fact makes the competition for Independent voters even more interesting, given that the Democrats flipped 13 seats, and (once three special elections are settled) will likely hold a majority in the state House, 102-101, for the first time in a dozen years.

Growing awareness of the impact that Independent voters have on both statewide and down-ballot races should give more momentum to a nonpartisan effort that I chair called Ballot PA, which aims to repeal closed primaries in Pennsylvania and allow Independent voters to choose a party primary in which to participate. According to the National Conference of State Legislators, Pennsylvania is one of only nine states that still bans Independent voters from participating in primaries. This despite the fact that half of all veterans are political independents and two-thirds of voters aged 18 to 39 in a recent poll support ending closed primaries. Former Pennsylvania GOP and Democratic leaders Alan Novak and TJ Rooney back the repeal of closed primaries, noting that allowing Independents to vote in primaries would give the parties more time to understand and court those voters – a “try before you buy” strategy that could prove beneficial in a tight general election.

These efforts may gain tailwinds as Pennsylvania enters the municipal election season in 2023. Pennsylvania is the land of local governments (close to 4,000, including school districts). Borough councils, township supervisors, school board members, local judges, and a few mayors will be elected in 2023. Remember that old line, “there’s no Republican or Democratic way to fill a pothole”? If that’s the case, many Independent voters ask, why don’t they get a chance to vote for their favorite pothole-filler? Another head-scratcher: candidates for local school boards and local judges can cross-file on another party line, which suggests that these are nonpartisan or at least bipartisan roles. But Independent voters again sit on the sideline even for races that decide who leads their kids’ school district.

Bills to ensure that all voters can vote in all elections have been gaining traction in recent years (in 2019, such a bill passed the state Senate 42-8, with strong bipartisan support) and will soon be dropping into the legislative hopper for the 2023-24 legislative session. All of this is to suggest that Pennsylvania just might be primed to reclaim its birthright of independence – and Independents.

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