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State Sens. Boscola, Laughlin Introduce Bill to Open PA Primaries to Independent Voters | WDIY Local News

State Sen. Dan Laughlin (left) and State Sen. Lisa Boscola (right) introduced Senate Bill 400, which would repeal Pennsylvania's closed primary elections and allow independent voters to cast a ballot.
Senator Dan Laughlin/Senator Lisa M. Boscola
State Sen. Dan Laughlin (left) and State Sen. Lisa Boscola (right) introduced Senate Bill 400, which would repeal Pennsylvania's closed primary elections and allow independent voters to cast a ballot.

A Lehigh Valley state lawmaker is introducing legislation that would open up Pennsylvania’s primary elections to independent voters.

Democratic State Sen. Lisa Boscola of Northampton County and Republican State Sen. Dan Laughlin of Erie County introduced the proposal, called Senate Bill 400.

The announcement was made during a press conference on Wednesday, which was also attended by David Thornburgh, chairman of the Ballot PA project, State Sen. Patrick Stefano, R-Fayette, State Sen. Maria Collett, D-Montgomery/Bucks, and former Pittsburgh Steelers player Rocky Bleier.

The legislation would repeal Pennsylvania’s closed primary elections and allow registered voters who selected “none” or “no affiliation’ on their voter registration form to vote in the primaries.

Pennsylvania is one of nine states which do not allow independent voters to participate in primary elections. The other states are Delaware, New York, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, and New Mexico.

Laughlin, who said he initially registered as an independent out of high school, noted that the number of independent voters in Pennsylvania is on the rise.

“Open primaries will produce better candidates capable of speaking to broader positions of the electorate in the fall,” he said.

“Given that all taxpayers pay for primary elections, and how decisions and votes by any of these elected leaders could affect every Pennsylvanian, it’s hard to imagine a more stark example of taxation without representation, especially in local races.”

According to the Pennsylvania Department of State, over 1.2 million voters are not registered with the Democratic or Republican parties, and the number of unaffiliated voters rose by 51,816 between 2015 and 2021.

Laughlin said similar proposals have attracted bipartisan support in the past, citing a 2019 proposal which passed in the Senate by a 42-8 vote. He said there is no evidence that allowing independent voters to participate in primaries would threaten political parties.

“This is not in any way, shape, or form some ‘poison pill’ to do away with the party system,” Laughlin said, “it’s to allow more people to participate.”

Boscola, who said she has been sponsoring legislation to allow unaffiliated voters to cast a primary ballot for decades, noted that many local races, such as for school boards, county or district judges, allow candidates to cross-file on the Republican and Democratic ballots during the primary.

“So independent voters don’t get a chance to weigh in,” she said. “And a lot of these positions are decided – some of these school board directors are decided in the primary. They’re locked out of it.”

Boscola said more voters are growing tired of hyper-partisanship in politics, including residents in her district.

“They are fed up, they are really fed up with hyper-partisan politics, that whole landscape. They’ve had it,” she explained.

“And they’re saying they’re registering independent…a lot more would if they were able to vote in a primary.”

Boscola cited a March 2023 Gallup poll, which found that 49% of Americans self-describe themselves as independents.

She said allowing independents to vote would “end the extremism of the two major parties,” increasing candidate and government responsiveness and accountability.

“With more independent voters wielding their vote, candidates would be forced to cater to voters outside of this ‘hyper-partisan base’ that we’ve become accustomed to lately,” Boscola said.

She said SB 400 has over a dozen primary, bipartisan cosponsors. Pennsylvania’s primary elections will be held on May 16th.

(Original air-date: 4/27/23)

Sarit "Siri" Laschinsky was WDIY's News and Public Affairs Director until 2023.
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