Open Primaries vs Closed Primaries

Line of Voters

The Issue

Pennsylvania’s closed primary elections shut out more than one million voters from important elections every year.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of State, nearly 1.2 million voters are registered as unaffiliated with a political party or Independent. This segment of the state’s electorate has been increasing for years - and is now the fastest growing segment of voters - consistent with a national trend of voters identifying as independents. But in Pennsylvania, these voters are prevented from participating in the local, state and federal primaries that are likely the most important elections in their communities.

From local council or commissioner to the U.S. presidency, more than one out of every seven registered voters are barred from having a say in a critical part of the electoral process. This occurs despite the fact that primaries, which cost at least ~$50 million to local and state government each spring, are funded with tax dollars from every Pennsylvanian regardless of their political affiliation. That's why it's time to repeal PA's closed primaries. 

The current system guarantees that fewer voters participate, elections are less competitive and, ultimately, political polarization is reinforced, contributing to legislative gridlock and hampering good governance.

Ballot PA believes in:

  • Fairness in representation: More than one million Pennsylvanians are shut out of primary elections that often determine who represents them.
  • No taxation without representation: Primary elections are funded with tax dollars from every Pennsylvanian regardless of whether they can participate.
  • Accountability in elections: Public officials should be accountable to the electorate at large, not party bases. 

The Solution

Repealing Closed Primaries in Pennsylvania will ensure that ALL voters matter and ALL votes count. 

Ballot PA supports repealing the closed primary process for Pennsylvania's elections. However, there are numerous other election systems to consider, and we encourage an informed debate around which would best serve the voters and the Commonwealth.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are six types of primary elections, all of which are more inclusive and include a broader swath of the electorate than the closed primary system used in Pennsylvania. Several variations include:

  • Open to Unaffiliated Voters – Unaffiliated voters can participate in any party primary they choose, but voters who are registered with one party are not allowed to vote in another party’s primary.
  • Open – Voters may choose privately in which primary to vote.
  • Top-Two – Every voter, regardless of party registration, uses the same ballot listing all candidates. The top two vote-getters in each race, regardless of party, advance to the general election.

Legislation introduced in the PA General Assembly in 2022 would have allowed the 1.1 million independent and unaffiliated voters shut out of primary elections in Pennsylvania to choose a Democratic or Republican ballot. We supported this legislation and urge members to consider reintroducing it in 2023.

Closed primaries have been used in the Commonwealth for generations. But our politics have changed; our communities have changed; our voters have changed. So should our elections.

Five Former PA Governors Call for Repealing Closed Primaries