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Your City Defined: Primary Elections

Why we have them, why they are the way they are — and how they might change to allow more people to vote in Pennsylvania

Your City Defined: Primary Elections

Why we have them, why they are the way they are — and how they might change to allow more people to vote in Pennsylvania

Ah, Election Day. My favorite time of the year. The trees are turning; the apple cider is crisp; the weather is mild enough to break out my herringbone jacket and boater. Fun for the whole family. And for democracy. It’s the most important day of the year.

Unless, ironically, you live in the city (and commonwealth) where that democracy began.

Don’t get me wrong, November 7 (well, technically the “next Tuesday after the first Monday in November”) is still a super important day. But in Philadelphia, where the vast majority of registered voters are Democrats, November 7 is, well … I’m not going to say it’s a formality, but from a mathematical perspective — it’s a formality. The Democratic candidate who makes it to the general will go home with the crown.

My god, people, Arizona lets unaffiliated voters cast a primary ballot, and I’m pretty sure they’re still recounting votes from 2020.

So, the most important day for democracy in Philly is not November 7, it is May 16, the primary election. On this day we citizens come together to decide who will be the candidate that sweeps into office come fall.

In another ironic twist, that most important of elections is not open to all Philadelphians. If you consider yourself a third-party or unaffiliated voter, you have exactly zero rights to participate in the primaries. Since 1937, you have had no ability whatsoever to shape who will be the general candidates. And that is bad for democracy.

A third twist of irony is that Pennsylvania, home of the first U.S. capital for chrissake, is one of roughly 10 states that haven’t figured out how to incorporate independent voters into its primary elections. My god, people, Arizona lets unaffiliated voters cast a primary ballot, and I’m pretty sure AZ is still recounting votes from 2020.

There is, however, a light at the end of this disenfranchising tunnel. In the past three consecutive legislative sessions, bipartisan bills have been put forward by the PA House and Senate to overturn that 1937 statute to finally allow 1.2 million unaffiliated Pennsylvanians to vote in the primaries.

The problem: closed primaries

It would be logical to ask why Pennsylvania closed their primaries in the first place. Or even why primaries exist at all. And like all good political tales, this one starts in the Progressive era — two decades of bills and constitutional amendments intended to break up the power of political machines and corporate monopolies, and return it to the people.

Around 1904 we started seeing the first attempts to institute primary elections in the U.S. Up to this point, a party’s nominee was chosen by delegates connected to the party’s hierarchy. These backroom deals were just the kind of cigar-puffing, bourbon-sipping examples of political elitism so despised by Progressive reformers. (Backroom deals, of course, still continue in among newer inventions like PACs and corporations posing as people and storied events— Pennsylvania Society, anyone?)

By 1916, a majority of the states had some form of primaries.

Through primary elections, the voice of the people cemented itself further into the American system. I’m sure reformers patted each other on the back and raised a beer to how much more democratic the country had become. And in comparison to the alternative, they were right. But there was a fatal flaw baked right into the system.

Open primaries is an idea we should steal from, like, almost all the other states in the Union.

What the reformers didn’t see coming is that some of us would choose to affiliate with no political party (or even a minor one because the big two suck, or any other plethora of reasons), but still feel inclined to participate in the primaries.

That is the fly in the ointment. It’s the voter who says, I’m not going to swear fealty to the Republicans or the Democrats or to anyone. I’ll vote on a case-by-case basis according to the individual candidates these parties put forward. And I can do that because casting a ballot in this country is a right.

Except that when it comes to primary elections in PA, it isn’t. Excluding voters from primaries hurts our democracy on all levels, but especially in the city where it was birthed. Why?

Because Democratic candidates in Philly will win most of the offices come November. As such, shouldn’t all non-Democrats, including Republicans, Independents, Libertarians, Greens, Working Families, and undeclareds be able to choose the candidates they like best? If May 16 comes and goes without so much as a nod to non-Democratic voters of the city, to whom will those candidates be beholden?

The answer is the folks who showed up. And news flash for a city that has abysmal voter turnout on good years, the people who show up tend to be from the more extreme ends of the political spectrum. You can see how this creates a snake eating its own tail — partisanship breeding partisanship, circling ever onward to a more divided, more fanatic union.

The solution: open primaries

Open primaries would be a dash of cold water on that overheating system.

I spoke with David Thornburgh, Chair of BallotPA, a statewide campaign to repeal the closed primary system in Pennsylvania, about the advantages of open primaries. First, it’s about fairness, he told me. Voting rights should never be selective. And this is especially true when it comes to the Americans who have fought to preserve our freedoms:

“Nationally, about 50 percent of veterans are political independents. If those folks are coming home from their service to Pennsylvania, they will find themselves cut out of an important election. If you put your life on the line for this country, it is unconscionable that you should be prohibited from voting in any election.”

Not to get all dollars and “sense,” here, but it’s also worth noting that if you are an independent voter, you are still paying for those barred primaries (to the tune of $75 million). At the county and state level, a primary election, from printing ballots to staff, are paid for by your tax dollars. I seem to remember us getting all hung up once on taxation and improper representation …

Second, as noted before, open primaries combat extremism.

“Generally, people who vote in primaries,” says Thornburgh, “come from the most, um … fervent wings of the parties. The fact that we exclude Independents is damaging to the whole political process. It creates unfortunate incentives for governing. And in a place like Philadelphia where the primary election is the only election, we make ourselves vulnerable to electing people and sending them to Harrisburg or Washington or somewhere in between, who are responsive to only the most intense voters who sent them there.”

As if Pennsylvanians need a reminder of the near miss to our democracy from last November, when the people you have to keep happy are also the most fanatic idealogues, well, it’s just math: A+B+C=Doug Mastriano.

“I mean, the verb ‘to primary,’ has become a threat,” Thornburgh says. “And I virtually guarantee you, it’s not the center that primaries candidates.”

Historians will dissect how a Christian Nationalist wackadoo who supported an insurrection against Congress almost became governor of Pennsylvania just two years later. A very large part of that answer is a primary election process that draws out the loudest fringes and a total absence of the diluting effects of moderate and unaffiliated voters.

Sure, Josh Shapiro spent a truckload of money in an ad campaign boosting Mastriano to the front of the extremist pack, but that only worked because the folks who voted for that theonomic headcase were receptive to pretty high levels of far-right toxicity. Shapiro wouldn’t have been as successful in handpicking his opponent if cooler heads were also allowed to be gatekeepers.

To primary or not to primary?

“I mean, the verb ‘to primary,’ has become a threat,” Thornburgh reminds me. “And I virtually guarantee you, it’s not the center that primaries candidates.”

Fairness, veterans, taxation without representation, Doug Mastriano … Why in the hell is Pennsylvania one of the 10 states that still holds closed primaries? It turns out our 1937 statute barring anyone not registered with a party from voting in that party’s elections was a fix for an entirely different problem.

The whole point of that code was to prevent Republican and Democratic agents from making up fake third parties in an attempt to confuse the voters. Should I cast my ballot for:

The Democratic Party of Eastern Pennsylvania?


The Eastern Pennsylvania United Democrats?


Democrats for Eastern Pennsylvania?

If agents could confuse enough opposing voters, those votes would disappear into the memory hole and weaken the bloc. Enough votes were disappearing in the early 1900s that Pennsylvania began requiring official party registration in order to participate in a given primary, thus validating the votes.

Unfortunately, the medicine of the 20th century became a poison of the 21st. Eighty years later, 14 percent of PA voters (and 13 percent of Philadelphia voters) have found themselves amputated from the primary process altogether.

Wait, I ask Thornburgh, that still doesn’t change the potential for opposition agents or extreme activists from infiltrating a primary and throwing an election. That could happen, right?

“No,” he says bluntly.

No pause, no wavering of conviction. Just “no.”

“That has become a political myth that doesn’t hold up to the facts. It might happen with a handful of voters here and there, but a well-organized, well-financed effort to change the effect of tens of thousands of votes? No. That’s like believing in widespread election fraud conspiracies. That level of political espionage simply doesn’t happen.

“And, since you brought up Shapiro and his $750,000 ad campaign on behalf of Mastriano, I’ll remind you that he did that in a closed primary system. Opening the primaries neither makes it harder nor easier for things like that to happen.”

Pennsylvania has been dragging its feet on opening the primaries, but there has been notable movement over the past six years. House and Senate bills have been introduced in the last three consecutive sessions to repeal our out-of-date system. Two bills made it as far as hearings last year. More are coming this spring. Thornburgh is optimistic.

“The tide is rising for this. And it makes sense. Just look at Republican performance in the last few elections — extreme candidates have been losing badly. And when Trump isn’t on the ballot, Democrats shed voters at an alarming rate.

Opening the primaries would be a benefit to both parties. If I didn’t believe it was possible, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. I wouldn’t be spending my time with BallotPA trying to convince our lawmakers to do the right thing and open Pennsylvania’s primaries now.”

It’s a hard thing to advocate for keeping primaries closed to third-party and unaffiliated voters. It makes no sense when you sort through the numbers and still try to justify withholding voting rights from more than a million Pennsylvanians (and about 135,000 Philadelphians). Open primaries is an idea we should steal from, like, almost all the other states in the Union. As Thornburgh points out, the 1937 statute has far outlived its usefulness.

“I remind people that in that same election code there’s a provision to provide every voter a lantern so they can read their ballot properly. That should tell you something. There are 40 other states that have figured out how to allow Independent voters to vote. Come on. This isn’t rocket science.”

Lead support for Every Voice, Every Vote is provided by the William Penn Foundation, with additional funding from The Lenfest Institute, Peter and Judy Leone, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Harriet and Larry Weiss, and the Wyncote Foundation, among others.


October 11, 1864, Philadelphia's 18th Ward. Print shows an emotionally charged condemnation of the Copperheads or Peace Democrats and their support of reconciliation with the Confederacy. In a scene at a polling place an old man (right) is approached by a "Copperhead" vote distributor, who thrusts a ticket at him, saying, "Here is an old Jackson Democrat who always votes a straight ticket." The older man angrily replies, "I despise you more than I hate the rebel who sent his bullet through my dead son's heart! You miserable creature! Do you expect me to dishonor my poor boy's memory, and vote for men who charges American soldiers, fighting for their country, with being hirelings and murderers?" A bespectacled man watches the scene from behind the ballot box. The narration and dialogue for the episode are provided in the lower margin. Published in: American political prints, 1766-1876 / Bernard F. Reilly. Boston : G.K. Hall, 1991, entry 1864-42.

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