Independent voters had nothing to do with Brandon Neuman getting a seat on Washington County’s Court of Common Pleas last year.
Here’s why: Even though Neuman technically won the judicial seat in the November general election, the former representative for the state’s 48th Legislative District had no competition because he cross-filed in both the Republican and Democratic primaries six months before, and triumphed in both contests. And because Pennsylvania does not allow voters registered as independents to vote in party primaries, or those who prefer the Greens, Libertarians, Prohibitionists, Socialist Workers or some other minor party, they ultimately had no say in whether Neuman got on the bench or not.
This same scenario has played itself out in hundreds of other contests over the years, because Pennsylvania remains one of just 14 states that has closed primaries. This means that only registered party members can vote in the primaries, despite the fact that taxpayers of all political persuasions pay the roughly $20 million price tag for them. This is unfair and should change.
There have been an assortment of proposals over the years to open the commonwealth’s primaries, but they haven’t gone anywhere. Last month, state Sen. Joe Scarnati, a Republican from Jefferson, said he plans to introduce legislation that will create open primaries. Even if a bill makes its way through both houses of the General Assembly and is signed by the governor, it could still require amending the state constitution to make it happen.
Scarnati told the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania “the extremes of the parties have taken over the primary process.”
This same point was made a couple of years ago by David Kershaw, a political science professor at Slippery Rock University. He told the Associated Press that “the closed primary undoubtedly creates more polarized and extreme candidates, which definitely leads to gridlock. Ideologues will refuse to cooperate. Their way is correct, everyone else is not.”
If allowing independents to vote in the primaries would moderate our politics, it would also get younger voters to the polls. As of 2015, half of Pennsylvania’s registered voters under the age of 34 were independents. More recent statistics show that about 743,000 voters in the commonwealth are registered as independents, and 445,000 others are registered with other parties.
And considering how low turnout is for primaries in non-presidential years, why should we be discouraging anyone from voting?
Opponents of open primaries argue that allowing independents into the process could lead to sabotage. For example, Democrats could be motivated to jump into a Republican primary if they believe one of the candidates would prove to be particularly weak in a general election match-up. Well, maybe. But most voters are interested in pulling the lever for a candidate they can support, rather than one they can defeat. And sometimes political parties can do a pretty good job of sabotaging themselves without any assistance from outside interlopers – think of candidates ranging from Roy Moore to Michael Dukakis.
The future could well belong to independent voters – 42 percent identified as such nationally in 2017. In Pennsylvania, it’s time to let them participate in all phases of the electoral process.