Op-ed by Senator Lisa Boscola
With primary election season upon us, it is apropos to talk about our Independent voters who are disenfranchised from these elections. For nearly 25 years, I have been a leading voice, unrelenting advocate, supporter and prime sponsor of bills to give voters unaffiliated with any party the right to participate in our primary elections. Membership in a political party (or the decision to avoid joining a political party) should not dictate whether a voter can vote in a primary.
For me it started in my first session in the House in 1996 with HB 2411 and has continued every session since, including this one with the introduction of SB 346. This bill seeks to allow unaffiliated/Independent voters the ability to choose a primary to participate in, either Democratic or Republican. It looks like the persistence is paying off. Several similar bills have been introduced by colleagues on both sides of the aisle and grassroots organizations are speaking out in favor of changing our antiquated primary system. It comes as no surprise that Pennsylvania lags behind other states being one of only nine states that has such a restrictive system.
No American citizen should be treated as a second-class voter. Every person who is eligible to vote should be allowed to participate in all elections.
Sadly, in Pennsylvania, citizens registered as Independent are prohibited from voting in primary elections. They are treated like second-class voters and this needs to change.
Now, more than ever, we need citizens to be engaged. If we are going to steer this democracy to calm waters and take our government back from the party bosses and the fringes of each party, it will take every voter getting involved and making their opinions known.
If we are serious about bolstering voter participation, we need to find ways to encourage more voters to come out on Election Day. In some election cycles, only about one in six registered Pennsylvanians bother to vote in the primary. If you think that number is dreadful, keep in mind that only 65 percent of eligible adults are even registered to vote.
Our democracy works best when citizen participation is maximized. By allowing more registered voters to fully participate in our elections process, i.e. voting in primaries, we can improve our democracy. Drawing the line at two parties makes no sense. It is time to provide all voters full participation privileges in our elections.
In Pennsylvania, over 1.2 million voters are not affiliated with the Democratic or Republican Party. That is more than 14 percent of all voters who cannot vote in primaries.
Registering as an Independent is a growing trend across Pennsylvania and across the nation. In fact, many people I speak to are so frustrated by the gridlock in Harrisburg and Washington that they want to switch their registration to Independent. Many do not only because of the simple fact they want to participate in primary elections. This makes no sense.
Not being affiliated with either the Democratic or Republican party should not disqualify someone from having a say in who the candidates will be for a General Election. Especially since many critical local elections like school board and county judge permit cross-filing for candidates, where the primary can decide the winner. Why are we disenfranchising a segment of registered voters from having a voice in whether school property taxes are raised, who the next superintendent, district justice or county judge should be? It is not right.
Independents pay taxes just like the rest of us. They serve in our military. These voters are parents who deserve access to the ballot box in all elections, so they have an equal right to weigh in on those who set policy.
After working for 25 years on this issue, I am happy that grassroots organizations and my colleagues in the Senate on both sides of the aisle are embracing the idea of allowing Independents to vote in primary elections. Democracy is fragile and it will only thrive with increased participation. The more educated and informed voters we can get to the ballot box the better off our democracy will be. Affiliating with the Democratic or Republican party should not be the threshold for having an equal opportunity to fully participate in our elections. The time has come to allow Independents to vote in our primaries. We need more voices pushing elected leaders in the House and the Senate to get my bill, SB 346, or any other one opening our primaries to the Governor’s desk.