Registering to vote as an independent is easily reversible. Allowing independents to have a say in party nominee selection is not.
Advocates of open primaries in Pennsylvania claim this system disenfranchises independent voters by restricting their influence over which candidates make it to the general election. All registered voters, regardless of political affiliation, pay for the primaries, but only registered Democrats and Republicans are allowed to participate. Some believe it’s unfair to those who wish to remain unaffiliated to have to register with a party to vote in primaries, but one can argue it’s just as unfair to party members that those who do not belong to the party have a say in that party’s chosen nominee.
Opponents of open primaries struggle to understand why independents ought to be included in the primary election process at all. If you choose to opt out of the party system by registering as an unaffiliated or independent voter, you effectively forfeit your right to have a say in how parties choose their candidates. Why is this controversial?
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Advocates of open primaries also claim implementing the system will quell the rise of polarizing far-Left or far-Right candidates and yield more moderate candidates for the general election — but this is mathematically improbable.
The percentage of voters registered as independents in Pennsylvania counties averages at fourteen percent — ranging from nine percent in Bedford County to 21 percent in Philadelphia County. This means that for independents to have a meaningful impact on primary elections in most counties, they would need to turn out in significant numbers and overwhelmingly back the same candidate — two things that are very unlikely to happen.
All of this is not to say hyper-polarizing candidates aren’t becoming a threat to meaningful representation. To mitigate this issue, one method worth considering is implementing a two-round primary system in Pennsylvania. This option leverages the voting power of registered party members, rather than bringing in those who chose to opt out of the party system.
So, how would a two-round primary work? The first round would have to be held in March, and the second round in June. The first round would look like the primaries we’re used to seeing, with two separate partisan primaries (Republican and Democrat) where any candidates willing to throw their hat in the ring are able to run.
If any candidate gets a majority in the first round, that’s it. That person is the nominee. But if not, the second round would consist of the top-two vote-getters from round one in each party campaigning against each other in a runoff election from March to June. Whichever candidates win these two runoff primaries will move on to the general election held in November.
With the rise of mail-in voting, having voters turn out at the polls for a two-round primary is less of a concern than it once was, and participation is more realistic.
Somehow, even with the abolition of meaningful political conventions, voters are still not feeling adequately represented by party nominees in Pennsylvania.
The majority of Republicans and Democrats are not far-Right or far-Left, and this is especially true in the most populous areas of Pennsylvania. Because of this, there tends to be several moderate, ideologically similar candidates running against each other in statewide primaries. This gives primary candidates who represent a plurality of voters — rather than the majority — a clear path to victory when the moderate voters fracture between moderate candidates.
The two-round system generally ensures a majoritarian result, not a simple plurality result as under the current system. It does this by synthesizing the vote totals of similar candidates whose platforms conform to the ideological majority of a particular party.
Having a candidate who does not represent the ideological majority of a political party can pose significant challenges in a general election — take, for example, state senator Doug Mastriano, who secured the Republican nomination in the 2022 Pennsylvania governor’s race. Mastriano was controversial among many Republican voters because many did not believe he accurately represented their preferred policy positions. Indeed, a significant portion of them voted for Josh Shapiro, or ended up not voting in the governor’s race at all, as evidenced by the fact that Mastriano performed below Republican registration numbers in some of the most populous counties.
All of this is to say that somehow, even with the abolition of meaningful political conventions, voters are still not feeling adequately represented by party nominees in Pennsylvania. The nature of a two-round primary system is inherently more democratic — voters are given more choice and an additional buffer round in nominee selection.
Thus, voters have more tools to increase their representation in government while mitigating the effects of political hyperpolarization. It may even result in the rising number of political independents to reconsider and rejoin the two-party system, which has been a bedrock of the American political system for many years.
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