Without question, election reform is in the air in Pennsylvania.
Legislation that would open up Pennsylvania’s Republican and Democratic primary elections to unaffiliated voters won approval on Tuesday of the Senate State Government Committee, along with several other bills to make changes to the state’s electoral process.
The changes are hoped will spur greater voter participation in the elections and are only part of a broader package of election-related bills the committee has considered or will consider in the fall, said committee Chairman Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon County.
Earlier this month, the House State Government Committee held a discussion that showed its interest in making some of the same changes to election law that the Senate committee approved to modernize the state’s election laws that have not been substantially updated in more than 60 years.
Pennsylvania is one of only nine states that doesn’t allow cross-over voting by members of other parties in its primary election, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The open primary legislation, sponsored Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, would allow the state’s 785,000 unaffiliated voters to have a voice in nominating Republican or Democratic candidates. It passed the committee by a 9-2 vote.
Sen. Katie Muth, D-Montgomery County, indicated while supportive of open primaries, she intends to offer an amendment that would open them up to even more voters.
As it now stands, the bill would allow only unaffiliated voters to participate in primary elections. She would like to amend the bill to allow people who are registered to third parties such as the Green Party or Libertarian to participate as well. Otherwise, she said it leaves out a large chunk of people who are forced to pay for the primary election without being able to participate in them.
Sens. Kristen Phillips-Hill, R-York County, and Pat Stefano, R-Fayette County, cast the dissenting votes. Hill said afterward that some of her constituents told her they weren’t comfortable with the idea of allowing people of other parties to choose their party’s candidate and “my job is to represent the people of the 28th” senatorial district.
Government reform advocates applauded the open primary legislation advancing out of committee.
“This is a promising day for independent voters across Pennsylvania,” said Jennifer Bullock, Director of Independent Pennsylvanians, as a grassroots advocacy group. “We’ve never had the opportunity to vote in what are often the decisive elections in our communities. Being forced to join a political party in order to have a voice in the electoral process is absurd and unfair. We’re grateful that Senator Scarnati has taken up this cause and especially pleased to see both Democratic and Republican members of the State Senate Government Committee supporting the issue.”
Ray Murphy, state coordinator for Keystone Votes, a nonpartisan coalition of 41 organizations working to update the state’s election laws, said, “The actions being taken now represent some of the most significant steps in 60 years. Let’s keep the momentum going so we can get it done in time for 2020, lest we’re forced to wait another generation for change."