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HARRISBURG — As voters head to the polls today for the primary election, more than 786,000 voters unaffiliated with a major political party will have few, if any,  choices to make.

That could change though as there appears to be momentum behind efforts to open the state’s primary elections to independent voters.

Senate Bill 300, authored by Senate President Pro Tem Joseph Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, would allow the state’s 786,000 registered independents to vote in the primary election.

Scarnati said that opening the primaries to independent voters would motivate candidates to campaign on more moderate positions and it would likely improve voter turnout.

He called it “a step to help bring back democracy and compromise in our political process.”

His plan would not allow the more than 400,000 voters who belong to minor political parties to vote in the primary.

Pennsylvania is one of just nine states with closed primaries – meaning that voters must belong to the political party of the candidate to vote for him or her. The others are Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, New Mexico, New York, Nevada and Oregon, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

While Pennsylvania has a closed primary system, there are four special elections today, in which all voters can participate regardless of political affiliation.

Those are: the race to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Republican U.S. Rep. Marino in the 12th Congressional District; the race to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of state Rep. Brian Ellis, R-Butler County; and the races to fill state Senate vacancies created by the resignation of Sen. Richard Alloway, R-Franklin County, and the retirement of state Sen. Donald White, R-Indiana County.

Scarnati’s proposal would follow the model used in nine other states – Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island and West Virginia. But it’s not the only solution employed by states, according to the NCSL.

“This system differs from a true open primary because a Democrat cannot cross over and vote in a Republican party primary, or vice versa,” according to the NCSL.

Eleven states allow all voters to pick which primary they want to vote in and three states – California, Louisiana and Washington, use the primary to select the top-two candidates regardless of the candidates’ political parties, who then face off in the general election. The rest of the states have policies that create partially-open primaries, according to the NCSL.

The move to open the state’s primary elections has bipartisan support, including from the Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

But since there are so many different approaches that can be taken to open the primaries, other lawmakers will be lobbying to make changes to Scarnati’s plan, said Micah Sims, executive director of Common Cause in Pennsylvania.

“There will be a robust debate,” Sims said.

Common Cause supports the idea of opening the primaries because it’s unfair that tax dollars are used to pay to run primary elections when not all taxpayers who are registered to vote can participate, Sims said.

In testimony to the Senate state government on April 30, Jeremy Gruber, senior vice president for Open Primaries, said the primaries cost the state $20 million a year. Open Primaries is a New York-based group lobbying to get states to abandon closed primary elections.

“They are held in government buildings, run by government employees and administered by the Secretary of the Commonwealth, yet they remain closed to many of the taxpaying citizens that fund them,” he said.

CNHI PA State Reporter

CNHI State Reporter John Finnerty covers the Pennsylvania Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Follow him on Twitter @cnhipa. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com.

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