Please — Please! — Let This Be the Last Closed Primary in Pennsylvania
Editor’s Note: This is an opinion column from Philadelphia magazine senior reporter Victor Fiorillo.
Voters in Pennsylvania are today being asked an important ballot question: Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to abolish the Philadelphia Traffic Court? (If you voted no, we need to have a talk.) But one question we’d really like the chance to vote on is this: Shall the State of Pennsylvania never, ever again have a closed primary?
In case you haven’t been paying attention, Pennsylvania is one of just 11 states with a closed primary. This means that when you show up in the voting booth on Primary Day, you can’t vote for just anyone. You have to vote within your registered political party, and that’s not going to change unless state law is changed as well.
So, let’s say, hypothetically, that you’re a registered Democrat who really likes what Donald Trump has to offer. You would be out of luck today if you wanted to throw a vote his way. And if you’re a registered independent or third-party member that doesn’t have a horse in the race, you can just stay home, because you can’t vote at all (other than on the aforementioned ballot questions).
“When someone shows up and realizes that they can’t vote for who they wanted to vote for, they feel disenfranchised,” says Republican Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt, whose office is in charge of voter registration and elections within the city.
Schmidt gave an example that occurred on Tuesday morning. A man called the City Commissioners to complain that he’s a Republican but wasn’t allowed to vote as one.
“‘I’ve been a Republican for the last 10 years!’ he insisted,” says Schmidt. But when the office looked into the man’s complaint, they discovered that he was a registered Democrat who has only voted in the general elections, and in the general elections, you can vote however you want. “He had never shown up for a primary before, and while he may be or see himself as a Republican, you can’t just say ‘I’m a Republican’ and be allowed to vote that way.”
A 2015 poll conducted by a pro-open-primaries organization found that 13 percent of independent or unaffiliated voters in the Philadelphia area — those voters who can’t vote in the closed primary — didn’t realize that Pennsylvania’s primary is closed.
So how do you get around this restrictive closed primary? Well, if you’re like me and many other Pennsylvanians, you change your party affiliation temporarily.
When I turned 18, I registered as a Democrat, and I’m pretty sure that I never voted for a Republican for major office other than when Sam Katz opposed John Street. But on March 28th, the last day to register to vote or change party affiliation in Pennsylvania, I filled out an online form to become a Republican, thinking that it was more important that I cast a vote against a fascist demagogue who will probably blow up the world (you’re welcome, John Kasich) than it was that I pick between two Democrats that I could give or take, especially when it seems pretty clear which one the delegate math favors. A few weeks ago, I received the little piece of paper from the government declaring that I am a Republican.
Now that I’ve voted in the primary, though, I’m changing my party affiliation back to Democrat. In fact, I already filled out the online form, and Schmidt assures me that his office will begin processing those new requests shortly after the headache of Primary Day is over. So I’ll be looking for yet another little piece of paper from the government in the mail, declaring that I have been switched back to Democrat.
Funnily enough, the voting booth today didn’t like that I was trying to vote for Kasich. I tried to push the button for him, and it wouldn’t light up. Just out of curiosity, I also tried to press the buttons for Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, and they wouldn’t light up either. So I called one of the two poll workers on the scene to assist.
“Oh, it’s not set for Republican,” he explained. He fiddled around on the back of the machine for a few seconds, and then I was allowed to vote the way that I wanted.
“Are you Republican or Democrat?” he asked the woman next in line.
“You’re not allowed to ask me that,” she offered.
“Well, if you don’t tell me, then I can’t let you vote,” he replied.
What he was supposed to do, says Schmidt, is look in the small box in front of him for a card with her name on it. That card shows the party affiliation, and then the poll worker sets the machine accordingly.
“If the person votes for a different party than their own, you can’t do anything about it once the vote is recorded,” he explains, meaning once that big green VOTE button is pressed. “There’s no unscrambling that egg. It happens a lot with Republican voters in areas that are overwhelmingly Democratic, because the poll workers get busy and just assume that the voter is a Democrat.”
Schmidt confirms that as a result of this confusion and a failure to follow protocol among the poll workers, sometimes people do vote for other parties, even in our closed election.
I tell you all this to illustrate how silly this closed primary business is. I should be able to vote for whomever the hell I choose and change my mind at the last minute. But I can’t.
“People’s political affiliations and beliefs change,” says Schmidt. “And if they didn’t file some piece of paper a month before an election, they can’t vote that way. I’d support anything that makes it easier for people to vote, and I suspect that if our primary wasn’t closed, we’d have a lot more people involved in the process.”
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