On Monday the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, Joe Scarnati, revealed that he would be drafting legislation to allow voters registered as independents to participate in Pennsylvania’s primary. Did Scarnati suddenly realize that it was wrong to force taxpayers to pay for elections where they couldn’t participate? Or, that over 740,000 voters were excluded from the primary process?
No, Senator Scarnati’s reason for pursuing this policy change wasn’t for any noble reason. Instead, he wants to allow independents to vote because he believes that they would be more likely to support the candidates that House and Senate leadership would be more able to control. Scarnati’s change of heart comes on the heels of a crushing primary defeat for an incumbent Senator.
Sen. Scarnati’s guy, Randy Vulakovich, was defeated by Jeremy Shaffer by over 17 percentage points. Scarnati asserted that the Senator lost because “[t]he extremes of the parties have taken over the primary process.” Sen. Scarnati couldn’t be more wrong. Vulakovich lost because in past elections he ran as a fiscal conservative, but his voting record was one of profligate spending and supporting $6 billion in tax increases. When voters learned that there was a disconnect between Vulakovich’s rhetoric and his voting record, they opted to show him the door.
CAP is supportive of the idea of allowing independents to vote in the primary, but the devil will be in the details of the legislation. Our reluctance comes because the leadership of both parties is pursuing reform because they believe it will shore up their control over the election process; not because it will increase civic engagement.
Considering that the policy change is intended to make it harder for outside organizations, like the CAP PAC, to influence the outcome of the primary, you might be wondering why we would be supportive of opening up the primaries at all. Simply put, we support the policy change because it will further weaken the influence of the Republican and Democrat parties. Also, we understand why voters leave their respective parties.
Although including independents will undoubtedly make it more expensive for candidates to reach potential voters, independent voters will be much less likely to care about who the Democrats or Republicans endorse in a given race. A lack of party affiliation provides an enormous opportunity for outside groups to reach out to an untapped pool of voters. Many independent voters left their respective parties because they accurately saw the party apparatus as a source of corruption and an avenue for the politically connected to advance. In other words, they will be voters who we can persuade based on principles.
When we look at the states who allow independents to vote in the primary, many of them have elected legislatures and governors who have taken far more principled stands than Pennsylvania’s elected officials. States like Indiana and Michigan, which have recently passed right to work legislation, have open primaries. Wisconsin, which drastically curtailed the influence and power of public sector unions has open primaries. And finally, Texas which leads the nation in economic growth has an open primary process. If opening the primary process is accomplished via a well thought out and fair legislative process, then there is the potential for a lot of upside for citizens of the Commonwealth.