There are close to 800,000 voters in Pennsylvania who are registered independents.
To put that in perspective, there are more independent voters in the Keystone State than there are in the entire state of Vermont. Or Alaska, North Dakota, Wyoming or the District of Columbia for that matter.
But because Pennsylvania has long had closed primaries, independent voters are forced to thumb-twiddle on the sidelines when the two major parties choose candidates in primary elections. And given the extent to which many communities have become one-party strongholds, either through intensive gerrymandering or birds of a feather flocking together, a primary election is often where the real competition takes place. Leaving independents out of the process is not only unfair, but weakens a democracy that could use some strengthening.
Just nine states have closed primary elections, and there’s the possibility that the commonwealth could soon leave this shrinking contingent if the Pennsylvania House of Representatives signs off on a Senate bill approved 42-8 earlier this year allowing open primaries. Gov. Tom Wolf has expressed support, but even with the backing of the General Assembly and governor, it could still require amending the state’s Constitution.
So, it might take a while for this to happen. Still, let’s get on with it.
Opponents of open primaries have long contended that they leave the door open for interlopers to commit acts of sabotage. Here’s how it could work: A Republican could switch their registration and become a Democrat, or vice versa, just so they can punch the screen for a candidate who could prove to be weak in the general election. But most people prefer to vote for candidates they like, not ones they dislike, and partisans of the two major parties can sometimes do a superlative job of undermining their own prospects. To cite one example, Democrat Doug Jones would probably not be one of Alabama’s two U.S. senators today if Republicans had not chosen Roy Moore, the Bible-thumping jurist credibly accused of sexual misconduct with several women who were just above or just below Alabama’s age of consent.
Another point: Pennsylvania’s primary elections cost $20 million, and independent voters foot a portion of that bill. They should be able to participate.
Last weekend in The Scranton Times-Tribune, Alan Novak and T.J. Rooney, both former leaders of the state Republican and Democratic parties, respectively, wrote that “we actually think that allowing independents to vote in the primaries can make the parties better and stronger.”
And we couldn’t agree more with their conclusion: “Including independents in the primary process is the right thing to do and it will make for better political parties, better candidates and better outcomes.”