Time for Open Primaries in Pennsylvania

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One of us, John Opdycke, founded the national advocacy group Open Primaries in 2009. “Back then it was like opening an institute for UFO research. People thought I was wasting my time on an irrelevant and illegitimate reform issue. I wasn’t a very sought after dinner guest," Opdycke recalls. 

Times have certainly changed. Between 2010 and 2019, California adopted nonpartisan primaries, and Colorado and Maine kept their partisan primary systems but allowed independents to participate. In 2020, Alaska adopted nonpartisan primaries via ballot measure, and more Floridians voted to enact nonpartisan primaries than voted for Donald Trump or Joe Biden (though the effort failed to pass, despite receiving 57% of the vote – you need 60% in Florida). Last year, Nevadans approved a measure to scrap partisan primaries as well, though this effort needs to pass again in 2024 to become law. And as we write, exploratory efforts are underway in a dozen states, from Oregon to Rhode Island, to rethink the rules of the game by which candidates are chosen and voters vote.

What’s driving these changes? Multiple factors are at work. The rapid rise of independent voters is changing the political calculus in all 50 states. Voters’ increasing disgust with the rancor and negativity of party politics. The rise of an energetic populism in both conservative and liberal forms that disdains and distrusts political institutions. And within academia, the think tank crowd, and activist philanthropy, a growing chorus asserting that gerrymandering and exclusionary, low-turnout partisan primaries have resulted in too many elections determined by the rabid few and not the pragmatic many.

A growing library of writing makes this case: Ro Khanna and Arnold Schwarzennegger in the Washington Post; Unite America’s The Primary Problem; the Bipartisan Policy Center’s What’s the Matter with Primaries?; The Institute for Political Innovation’s The Politics Industry: How Political Innovation Can Break Partisan Gridlock and Save Our Democracy; Open Primaries’ The Next Great Migration – The Rise of Independent Voters; and many more. The common theme? Our primary election process isn’t broken – it’s fixed!

Gallup reports that a near-record percentage (49%) of Americans now consider themselves political independents, dwarfing the 25% each who describe themselves as Democrats or Republicans. This includes veterans (one of every two), who swear an oath to protect our Constitution and our democratic republic, and young voters (57%), who will inherit that democratic republic in all its dysfunctional glory.

Nowhere is this surge of “bottom-up meets top-down” interest more striking than in Pennsylvania. In at least the last four two-year legislative sessions, bills have been introduced to repeal closed primaries so that the state’s 1.1 million independent voters could choose a party primary in which to participate. In the last few weeks, bipartisan bills with respected champions have been introduced in the state House and Senate. Longtime observers sense that this just might be the year when these efforts reach fruition.

Pennsylvania is hardly an early-adopter state. One wag notes that if the world were to end today, Pennsylvania would still have another fifteen years. In football terms, it’s a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust political culture, not a “Hail Mary, go long and I’ll hit you” political culture. It’s not an accident that Ballot PA, the campaign to repeal closed primaries launched by the long-established good-government group the Committee of Seventy, has drafted Steeler great and Vietnam veteran Rocky Bleier as its most effective spokesperson. Says Rocky: “when you fight for our country, and our freedom, you’re not fighting for Republicans or Democrats. You’re not on the red team or the blue team. You’re on the red, white, and blue team. That’s why it’s particularly disappointing to know that independent voters are barred from primary elections in Pennsylvania.”

What’s going on in the Keystone State that moves this issue into the realm of the thinkable and doable? Again, it’s multiple factors. Some 50 new legislators in the state capitol who realize they’re now vulnerable to being “primaried” by ideologues; adding less partisan independent voters to the primary mix might appeal as a bit of an insurance policy to some of these legislators. A newly (and narrowly) Democratic House and a savvy governor see the matter as a voting rights issue, one that statewide polls say is supported by 80% of black voters and 85% of progressives. Mainline Republicans have had it with the closed system’s candidate-selection process, which has lost the GOP the governor’s office, a U.S. Senate seat, and the state House by shocking margins – all powered by almost 2-1 opposition from independent voters to GOP candidates. Over 20 media outlets from around the state have endorsed the open-primaries proposal. In its endorsement last week, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said simply: “Pennsylvania’s closed primary system disenfranchises independents and polarizes the political process.”

Pennsylvania is, of course, a big prize in the 2024 presidential sweepstakes, and both parties are feeling the pressure to tighten up the electoral process (the rules about who votes, how they vote, and how their votes are counted) before the political bombardment begins in early 2024. As that train gets on the track and takes on passengers, ending Pennsylvania’s closed primaries just might become reality.

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