PA’s closed primary system shuts out independent voters


By Eric Boehm |

Voters are heading to the polls in Pennsylvania.

Well, actually, only voters who are registered with political parties who have races on the ballot are welcome at the polls Tuesday — in other words, just Democrats and Republicans — because of Pennsylvania’s closed primary system.

NOT ALL WELCOME: Political parties have the right to limit who participates in their primaries, but everyone helps to foot the $20 million bill.

Pennsylvania’s system means voters who are registered with third parties, registered independents and unaffiliated voters are paying taxes to help foot the bill for the election, but they are not allowed to participate in it.

“I am one of over a million voters in PA who will help pay for the cost of holding these very important first round of elections,” said Jenn Bullock, director of Independent Pennsylvanians, a grassroots group that has lobbied for Pennsylvania to change its primary laws to allow more voters to participate.

The group is organizing protests a polling place in Philadelphia on Tuesday to draw attention to their cause.

It’s not a unique situation — Pennsylvania is one of 13 states with closed primaries that allow only registered members of political parties to participate. Another 15 states have so-called “semi-closed” primaries, but those at least allow registered independents to choose to vote with one party or the other in the primary, without allowing registered Democrats to cross over and vote for Republicans or vice versa.

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. Counties ultimately foot the bill for the process.

Pennsylvania has nearly 4.1 million registered Democrats and just over 3 million registered Republicans, according to the latest voter registration figures.

But there are 647,000 registered independents in the state and another 415,000 voters who have no affiliation. That’s technically different than being registered as an independent, but not really.

State Sen. Rob Teplitz, D-Dauphin, has sponsored a bill to change how the state conducts primary elections, as part of a bipartisan “government reform” effort with state Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster.

Teplitz’ plan would allow independent voters to choose to cast a ballot in either the Democratic primary or the Republican primary without changing their affiliation.

“We should be looking at more ways to get people into the process of voting and not excluding,” he told Fox-43 this week.

But more than a year after the bill was introduced, the only attention it has received was from a group of middle-schoolers who wrote an essay about the merits of open primaries and got recognized on the floor of the state Senate.

Meanwhile, the bill hasn’t received even a committee vote.

Boehm can be reached at and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.