Independent, 3rd party voters pay, don’t play in PA primary
'System perpetuates the lack of political power for alternative parties'
By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — More than 1 million registered votes in Pennsylvania will not be allowed to participate in Tuesday’s primary election, even though they help pay for the candidate-selection process.
Under state law, Pennsylvania’s primary election is closed, meaning only voters registered with either the Republican or Democratic parties may vote. Voters registered as independents or with third-party affiliations are helping pick up the tab for what is, essentially, an internal process in which only Republican and Democratic voters can take part.
Independents and third-party groups say they are being frozen out of an important step in the electoral process, but the major parties defend the system as necessary, because only their members are choosing the respective nominees.
About half of the states have open primaries — which allow all voters to participate regardless of affiliation — or partially open primaries that allow independents to vote in one of the major party primaries.
Jennifer Bullock is founder and director of Independent Pennsylvanians, a grassroots organization of about 500 registered independents who fight for equal ballot access and open primaries. She said the primary election is the first step of a two-level process and all should have access, as they do in the general election in November.
“Essentially, we’re locked out of the critical first round of the electoral process,” she said. “It’s part of a system that perpetuates the lack of political power for those who choose to not be a part of the two major parties.”
Because of the closed system, many voters in the state register with the Republican or Democratic parties simply so they can vote in the primary, which artificially inflates the size and power of those two parties at the expense of third-party groups, she said.
The Pennsylvania Department of State estimates it costs about $20 million to conduct the election, which covers the cost of the voting machines, poll workers and tabulation of results. Since elections in Pennsylvania are conducted at the county level, county taxpayers pick up the costs.
Pennsylvania has more than 4.1 million registered Democrats and nearly 3.1 million registered Republicans, according to the latest voter registration figures.
More than 1 million Pennsylvanians are registered as independents or affiliated with a third party. None of them will be allowed to vote Tuesday, except in the six state House districts filling vacancies with special elections, which are being held at the same time as the primary.
Two bills in the General Assembly would open Pennsylvania’s primary election to all voters.
House Bill 994, sponsored by state Rep. Eugene DePasquale, D-York, is awaiting action in the House State Government Committee; Senate Bill 1295, sponsored by state Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, is similarly languishing in the Senate State Government Committee.
Bullock said she holds little hope either bill will advance.
“They never even get out of committee, because the lawmakers know open primaries would hurt their ability to control the election process,” she said.
Pennsylvania is one of more than 20 states with completely closed primary elections. In some
other states, registered independents are allowed to choose which primary to vote in, while others allow all voters to cross party registration lines if they so choose.
Mark Nicastre, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, defended the closed primary.
“We believe Democrats should have the right to select who runs under their banner,” he wrote in an email.
The Republican Party of Pennsylvania did not return requests for comment.
But the result is that independent voters and members of third parties are relegated to the status of second-class citizens in the Keystone State, said Robert Small, facilitator for Pennsylvania Ballot Access Coalition and a registered member of the Green Party from Delaware County.
“They are forcing me to pay taxes for something that I can’t participate in,” he said. “We’re frozen out of this process.”
Pennsylvania Ballot Access Coalition is a group of third-party voters who are pushing for equal ballot access requirements.
State law sets a threshold of 2 percent of the vote to qualify as a political party for the purposes of a primary election, said Ron Ruman, spokesman for the Department of State.
Third parties that qualify by obtaining enough of the vote in a general election would get a spot on the ballot in the subsequent primary election, two years later for the same race.
But third parties have to meet more difficult ballot access requirements to even be on a general election ballot, further stacking the deck against them.
Opponents of the current system point to the fact that third parties can compete on a level playing field in almost every other nation on the planet — including France, England, Canada and even fledgling democracies such as Iraq's.
Third parties with contested primaries end up paying out-of-pocket to hold their own contests, which drains resources they could otherwise bring to bear in a general election against the major parties.