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Free Citizen

This writer espouses individual liberty, free markets, and limited government.

Location: Jackson, Mississippi, United States

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Closed Primary in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania, which registers voters by party, had party primaries last Tuesday. The Scranton Times Tribune editorializes against the state's closed primary system.

"[Voters registered as independents or with minor parties] are allowed to vote in primaries only on ballot questions, rather than for candidates. There were no statewide questions to be answered by voters Tuesday, and only a few local questions in isolated jurisdictions.

"The Legislature, which comprises only Republicans and Democrats, continues to restrict primary voting to only Republicans and Democrats. ... ."

In 1986, the U. S. Supreme Court gave parties the right to invite independents to vote in their primaries (Tashjian v. Republican Party of Connecticut). Neither major party in Pennsylvania does. Thus the legislature cannot stop the parties from letting independents vote, but it can prohibit the parties from inviting members of opposing parties into their primaries. The Pennsylvania legislature obviously does prohibit the latter.

"Even though the primary technically just nominates members of each party, the parties don't pay for the process; the taxpayers do. Registering with a minor party or as an independent does not exempt disenfranchised voters from their share of the primary election's cost."

In 1995, the 8th U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that, when the state compels parties to hold primaries, the state, in effect, must pay the costs of those primaries (Republican Party of Arkansas v. Faulkner County). If a state were to stop requiring parties to conduct primaries, the parties would likely stop doing so, due to the expense. They would instead nominate by convention or some other method, and grassroots citizens would only be able to vote in the general election.

"Judicial and school board candidates are allowed to 'cross-file' - to seek Democratic and Republican nominations - under the theory that allowing them to do so will diminish political influence in those races. The practical result is that many candidates win both nominations, effectively being elected to office in the primary."[1]

Pennsylvania's primaries are in May (April in presidential election years), and independent candidates have until August 1 to qualify for the November ballot. Also, the state allows unrestricted write-ins in both the primaries and the general election.

Many U. S. jurisdictions have nonpartisan judicial elections: there are no party primaries, and all candidates run in the same election. Mississippi, for example, has nonpartisan state and county judicial elections.

A Pennsylvania citizen who wants to vote in a major party's primary should simply register with that party. In 2004, several thousand union members changed their registrations from Democratic to Republican in order to vote for Senator Arlen Specter in the GOP primary.

Ironically, Pennsylvania is the state where the direct primary election originated in 1842. The pioneers were the Democratic Party of Crawford County, in the northwestern part of the state.


[1] California allowed cross-filing from the early 1900s until 1959. Two well-known politicians who took advantage of it were the Republicans Earl Warren and Richard Nixon. Warren won both major party nominations for governor in 1946, while Nixon did likewise for the U. S. House in 1948.


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