Montco LP Blog
It’s primary season in Pennsylvania. Each spring the Democratic and Republican party machines emerge from their holes to sing about the importance of exercising your right to vote for their preferred candidates. But unlike the spring blossoms, primary elections in Pennsylvania are anything but beautiful.
Primaries in Pennsylvania are “closed” - only voters registered as Democrat or Republican are allowed to vote. What if you don’t like those parties? A 2019 poll from Gallup reveals that about 54% of Americans identify as either a Democrat or Republican and 44% as “independent”. However in PA about 85% of voters are registered D or R, and 16% as something else.
Why the large discrepancy? The voting rules in PA create an incentive for voters to lie. Many voters register with a party they don’t like, just so they can vote in the primary. Some voters believe they are required to choose between the two old parties, unaware that there are other options. Other independent minded Pennsylvanians see the game is rigged and simply choose not to register at all. The two party primary system effectively protects the two old parties from competition by deterring registration in emerging parties.
Should non-affiliated voters be allowed to vote in a partisan primary? After all the primary is for parties to nominate their candidates. This argument makes sense if primaries are funded by the parties, but they are not. Primaries are funded by the taxpayers. State-wide more than 1 million non-affiliated voters are forced to pay for primary elections in which they are not allowed to participate. The only fair solution is for parties to pay for their own primary, or the primaries must be opened up to include all voters, regardless of party registration.
PA Senate Bill 300 proposes to open PA primaries to “unenrolled” voters. This excludes minor party voters but allows otherwise unaffiliated voters to vote in the primary. It’s fairer than the status quo, but still unfairly excludes minor party voters and forces them to pay for the major party elections. At the moment the bill is sitting in the state government committee where it is likely to languish due to lack of support from the major parties.
Can other parties have a primary? In order qualify for a primary in PA, a party must secure 15% of registered voters. This is a very high bar. Consider that in Massachusetts Republicans are only 10% of registered voters and in Utah, only 13% of voters are registered Dems. If that were the case in PA, one of the two major parties would not be entitled to a primary election. Even the third largest party in PA, the Libertarian Party, only has about 0.5% of registered voters - not even close to the 15% needed for a primary.
Voter turnout in primaries is historically pathetic. In the 2017, only 15.7% of registered voters in Montgomery County turned out to vote. This is not surprising. Unlike the general municipal election, voting in a municipal primary is usually a waste of time. Very few races are competitive. Most races only have one candidate on the ballot. Taking time off of work to vote for the prothonotory in a non-competitive race hardly seems like a good use of vacation time.
Do we even need primaries? Primaries cost tens of millions of dollars to administer. In addition to the obvious cost of people and voting machines, primaries result in lost productivity from people leaving work to stand in line to vote, closed schools, and legal fees spent challenging candidates. Simple changes to the way we vote can eliminate the need for a wasteful primary. Better voting methods, such as approval, score, or ranked choice voting, empower voters to express their preference for several candidates in one shot, eliminating the need for multiple rounds of elections. These voting methods are also more fair and eliminate the dreaded third party spoiler effect.
Pennsylvania primaries are both unfair and a waste of tax dollars. They should either be paid for by the parties, opened to all voters regardless of party, or cancelled. Until then I will be sitting them out. I hope you’ll join me.