Pa. lawmakers pushing for more open primaries

Political notebook

A group of state lawmakers is moving to open Pennsylvania’s primary elections to unaffiliated voters, adding hundreds of thousands of potential voters to Democratic and Republican races each spring.

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, introduced a bill Thursday to expand the primary voter rolls to “unenrolled electors” — those who have registered to vote in their hometowns, but who decline to affiliate with any party. More than 740,000 Pennsylvania voters would fall into that category, Scarnati said.

“In our most recent primary election, only 18 percent of Pennsylvania’s registered voters went to the ballot box to cast a vote,” Scarnati said in a memo to fellow lawmakers this summer. “The low turnout can in part be attributed to voters feeling disenfranchised by the extremes of both major parties, who have taken control of our primary process. Allowing more people the opportunity to have a voice in their representation is an important step toward ensuring democracy.”

As it stands, Pennsyl­vania law allows voters to change their party identity weeks before a primary election — this year, for example, voters could register up to April 16 to vote in May 15 primaries. Those who don’t make the cut are left to vote only in the November general election, a lesser (or sometimes non-existent) choice for those who live in solidly red or blue districts.

Under Scarnati’s proposal, unaffiliated voters could pick a primary once they arrive at a polling place on election day. An unaffiliated voter would pick just one party’s primary ballot; the decision would have no bearing on registration or future primary choices.

Nine other states — including neighbors West Virginia and New Jersey already follow similar rules, according to the National Conference of State Legisla­tures.

Fifteen more states hold open primaries, in which even registered Democrats and Republicans can cross party lines at the last minute and influence the other party’s nomination. Critics contend that system dilutes party members’ voices and allows for ballot-box trickery.

Well over 1 million Pennsylvania voters are registered outside the two major parties. As of May in Blair County, 8,800 of 75,000 voters were registered to “other” — many of them unaffiliated.

Open (or semi-open) primaries can have a clear effect on parties’ choices. President Donald Trump performed better in open-primary states than in those that limited the vote to Republicans; Democratic hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., called on the party to back open primaries during his 2016 fight against Hillary Clinton.

Harsh ballot rules, on the other hand, can depress turnout in even the hardest-fought elections. In New York on Thursday, voters surmounted a series of legal obstacles to turn out in massive numbers — but even then, only a small percentage of eligible voters appeared. The state requires voters to change registration a month before the prior general election — meaning those seeking to vote in the September primary had to make their choices by October 2017 (the rule famously kept two of Trump’s children from casting ballots for him).

Scarnati’s proposal isn’t the only one on the rolls in Harrisburg. Rep. Dave Reed, R-Indiana, submitted a similar, although slightly differently worded, bill in June. The open-primary proposal — cospsonsored by Rep. Tommy Sankey, R-Osceola Mills — was part of a raft of government reforms that included redistricting and committee term limits.

“Too many races, especially local races, find finality in the spring election, and these voters should not be left out,” Reed told colleagues.

Scarnati’s bill is set to be heard in the Senate State Government Committee, while Reed’s has awaited attention in the House Rules Committee.

Analysts give Wolf growing edge

Gov. Tom Wolf and former state Sen. Scott Wagner may be trading jabs and targeting senior voters, but Washington observers appear increasingly confident that Wolf has a hard-to-beat lead.

After a series of polls have shown Wolf with a double-digit advantage — that latest, from Franklin & Marshall College, has him up 14 points — race handicappers are changing their assessments for November.

Roll Call, a Capitol Hill news and analysis outlet, moved the race last week from “lean Democratic” to “likely Democratic.” The shift follows other experts, including University of Virginia analyst Larry Sabato, making positive statewide predictions for Pennsylvania Democrats.

Big names to back Pennsylvania races

Pennsylvania is set to host dueling get-out-the-vote addresses this Friday — one from former President Barack Obama, the other from presidential son Donald Trump Jr.

Reporters revealed Friday that Obama would appear this week in Philadelphia at a fundraiser supporting Wolf and Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. The announcement comes weeks after Trump’s eldest son made plans to address Republicans at their party conference in Hershey.


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