Would open primaries boost voter turnout here

Would open primaries boost voter turnout here?

By Rodney L. Sherman



Approximately 42 percent of Clarion County registered voters went to the polls for the May 21 primary election.

Sadly that's a respectable number for an off-year primary election. The turn-out might have been boosted by the races for county judge, district attorney and a write-in effort involving the county commissioners race.

However, about 11 percent of registered Clarion County voters were barred from casting votes in the primary election.

Those approximately 2,6,49 voters are registered as other than Republicans and Democrats.

And Pennsylvania has a closed primary election system, meaning only registered Republicans and Democrats may cast ballots in the primary election. Pennsylvania is one of 15 states with a closed primary system.

Registered voters of other parties can vote on referendum questions on primary ballots.

According to Ballotpedia, the rule applies to both presidential preference primaries and primaries for other offices (including congressional, state-level, and local offices).

In Pennsylvania, the winner of a primary election is the candidate who receives the greatest number of votes, even if he or she does not win an outright majority of votes cast.

(Ballotpedia is the digital encyclopedia of American politics and elections. Its content "includes neutral, accurate, and verifiable information on government officials and the offices they hold, political issues and public policy, elections, candidates, and the influencers of politics.")

As taxpayers, those registered voters who are other than Republicans and Democrats still help bear the cost of the elections they are not permitted to vote in.

In Clarion County, as of May 14, there were 13,105 registered Republicans and 7,201 registered Democrats.

The next largest "party" registration is the Libertarian Party at 91 members in the county.

Approximately 26 other "parties" have a total of about 75 to 80 registered members.

However, 2,422 voters in Clarion County are registered as "Independent, No Affiliation, No Party, None or Non-Partisan."

Changes coming?

As the nation's political views and parties become more diverse, there are calls to change the way closed-primary states handle their elections.

There are two bills each in the state House and Senate calling for changes in the primary.

According to state Rep. Donna Oberlander (R-63), House Bill 192 would allow registered Independents to vote in the primary election while House Bill 821 would allow Independents to voting in primary races involving contests in which candidates can cross file.

Senate Bills 300 and 357 would allow Independents to vote in the primary election.

State SenatePresident Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, a Republican, introduced one of the Senate bills.

"I'm a conservative," Scarnati said. "But I don't know that I fit the new brand of conservative, and I'm not sure some of the Democrats fit the new brand of liberals."

The change would likely require a change to the state constitution.

"At this point in time, the legislation has just been introduced, which I expect will undergo close review through the committee process," Oberlander told the CLARION NEWS in an email correspondence.

Oberlander said she has not made up her mind yet on the proposed changes.

"I am keeping an open mind through that process so that all of the pros and cons can be weighed," said Oberlander. "I look forward to learning more about how open primaries work in other states and if that would make the best sense in Pennsylvania."

The possibilities

Oberlander included information about different primary election systems she received from the National Conference of State Legislators.

The different primary systems include:

Closed primaries: Pennsylvania's current system, closed primaries or caucuses allow only registered members of the political party to participate in the nomination process.

Proponents believe only those committed enough to the party to register should be allowed to decide who will be their candidates.

They also say closed systems contribute to strong party organization.

Opponents note that closed system exclude independent, unaffiliated and third-party voters from the important nomination process.

Open primaries permit any registered voter to participate, regardless of political affiliation, or lack thereof.

Proponents argue this system gives all voters the most choices, provides flexibility and maintains their privacy.

Opponents counter it gives nonparty members the opportunity to interfere with their party's nomination process.

Under the Top-two candidate primary system, all candidates are listed on one ballot, but only the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, get to compete in the general election.

Proponents argue this system gives independent voters an equal voice and may help elect more moderate candidates from the two major parties.

Opponents argue it reduces the ability of third-party candidates to get on the ballot and limits voters' choices by increasing the likelihood that two candidates of the same party will face off in the general election.

Many states us a hybrid primary system that falls somewhere in between open and closed.

In a few states, voters choose which party to register with by choosing which primary to vote in (partially-open).

Some states allow unaffiliated voters to choose either party's primary to vote in -- a choice that is public information -- while other states bar them from both.

And in other states, the political parties decide whether to welcome voters who are unaffiliated or from another party to participate in their primary (partially-closed primaries).

Would it matter?

Both Republican and Democratic Party leaders have voiced frustration with the closed system because it leaves independent votes on the table.

The number of independent voters has been on the rise, increasing by more than 100,000 statewide over the past five years.

Many studies have been done about increasing voter turnout with many different findings and suggestions.

Open primaries have been suggested in several studies.

Other studies have found voter turnout did not significantly increase in states where open primary elections were adopted.