A special election scheduled for the same day as the Pennsylvania primary will be the only reason third-party voters have to come to the polls this year.
John Vitale, of Williamsport, is considering switching from Democrat to independent but says he is less likely to do so if it means he can’t vote in the primary.
“Not being able to vote in primaries is probably the biggest reason why I haven’t changed to independent,” Vitale said. “Excluding independents from primary voting is just a mechanism to force constituents to vote in a way that may not be in their best interest.”
What does closed primary mean?
Pennsylvania’s closed primary system means that only candidates of the Republican or Democratic party can be placed on the ballot and only voters registered in either party may vote, according to Forrest Lehman, director of Lycoming County Voter Services. The one exception this year is that a special election for U.S. Rep. Tom Marino’s 12th Congressional District seat will be open to all voters, Lehman said.
Of the more than 68,300 voters in Lycoming County, 21,000 are Democrat and 38,000 are Republican, which leaves just over 8,000 as third-party voters, according to Lehman.
The state average is higher, with roughly 12 % registered third party, and the national average tops them both with 42 % who identify as independent, which is more than either Republican and Democrat parties, according to a recent Gallup poll.
Why keep it closed?
The motivation behind a closed primary system stems from efforts to keep voters from infiltrating an opposing party’s ballot to vote for a minority candidate and shift the outcome of the race, according to Craig Miller, professor of social science and political science at Pennsylvania College of Technology.
Miller, an independent, said the drawback to such a system is that it ends up “locking out people who want to participate in the process.”
Historically, third-party voting has drawn criticism because it can take votes away from a major candidate, Miller said, adding that if the goal is simply to select a winner, then voting with a majority party makes sense.
However, “if you’re voting to send a message to the system, then I would never discourage people from voting third party,” he said, proposing that “third parties should identify the people who are disaffected in the other parties and offer them a viable alternative.”
Issues not parties
Like many throughout the country, Vitale finds it hard to align his views with one party or another.
“Politics has become so partisan that I feel citizens are being tricked into politicians telling them how they should think,” he said. “I think it should be the other way around.”
For an independent or third-party candidate to secure a spot on the primary ballot, he or she would need to get at least 15 % of the vote in the previous general election, Lehman said.
“They’ve never gotten there,” he said.
The fragmentation of independent parties in Pennsylvania may make it hard for any third-party candidate to gain traction in the state. There is not one designated party, but rather a lot of small parties. Some could be only one or two people, Lehman said.
But Miller added that the likelihood of a third party growing enough to offset either of the major parties will depend on the role of the executive and legislative branches of government. If voters believe it’s more important to have a majority control in Congress, then the major parties will remain, he said.