Scott Bomboy

Scott Bomboy

On May 18, 2021, Pennsylvania voters head to the polls for municipal primary elections, except for nearly 1.3 million registered taxpayers barred from casting ballots. And I am one of that group — an independent voter.

Today, about 15% of registered state voters are not Democrats or Republicans. In Bucks County, that number is closer to 17% and growing. And on May 18, I’ll be at outside my polling place in Perkasie Borough, talking to residents, as an elected councilman. But there’s no voting for me.

In 2016, voters paid about $2.30 each in taxes to fund the 2016 Pennsylvania primary. Independent voters paid $2.8 million as a group for the right not to vote in the primary that year. Elections in Pennsylvania cost a lot more now with new voting systems put in place.

Pennsylvania and 8 other states have closed primary systems, where only Democrats and Republicans can vote, unless there is a special election or constitutional referendum. To be sure, a system forcing people to pay for elections and barring them from voting at the same time violates our democracy’s purest principal: no taxation without representation.

Don’t expect that to change right now in the Keystone state. However, voter trends will force the state to open up its primary system eventually. Take my case as an example.

In 2018, I dropped my party affiliation for several reasons. I am editor of a non-partisan center that deals with constitutional issues. I’m also an elected official in Perkasie Borough, outside of Philadelphia. Occasionally, I write about local political issues when there is a constitutional problem. I felt there could be a perceived conflict as an elected official belonging to a party presenting myself as non-partisan authority. Also, in local politics, people come first, not political parties. I didn’t need to be a Democrat or Republican to be an effective leader.

My example isn’t typical, and voters become independent, non-affiliated or third-party members for many other reasons. And ironically, my vote may count more toward settling general elections. In Pennsylvania, more than 450,000 voters dropped their Democratic and Republican affiliation since 2008. In the last two presidential elections, about 115,000 voters became independents, non-affiliated, or minor-party voters.

Those may not seem like big numbers, but in Bucks County, the independents now play a big role in county elections. In March 2021, Democrats accounted for 42.9% of Bucks County voters and Republicans had 40.3%. The gap between Democrats and Republicans was 2.6%. The independents have nearly 17% of the remaining votes, so the independent vote can sway an election for the commissioners and the row offices.

In Pennsylvania, about 51 percent of voters live in counties like Bucks, where there are more independent voters than the gap between registered Democrats and Republicans. That includes the “collar counties” such as Berks, Chester, Delaware, Lehigh, Montgomery, and Northampton, which played a big role in the 2020 general election.

On the surface, it would make sense for both parties in Pennsylvania to accept open primaries. With more people voting, Democrats and Republicans would get a better sense of where they stand heading into the November election. In 2019 an open primary bill was passed by a 42-8 margin in the state Senate, but the state House refused to consider it.

But things are changing, since more people are switching parties. Statewide between 2008 and 2020, Republicans gained 40% of people who switched political affiliations, compared with just 25% of voters who switched to become independents. So far in 2021, the statewide numbers are nearly reversed, with independents making up 37% of the party-switchers, versus 24% becoming Republicans. In Bucks County this year, nearly 45% of people who switched political affiliations ignored the Democrats and Republicans entirely.

For me as an independent candidate, there is a double whammy: I don’t have easy access to run for re-election this May since primaries usually settle local races. Of the 82 borough council seats in the 2019 Bucks County elections, 56 went uncontested in the primaries. Independents only won two council seats in the November 2019 general election.

However, through Pennsylvania’s arcane election system, as an independent I can run twice for the same office: as a write-in in the primary and as an independent in the fall election. In 2019, eight Bucks County borough council candidates won their opposing party’s nomination by getting people to cast write-in votes. Independents can also file nomination papers and run in the general election.

These various factors make the closed primary system obsolete in Pennsylvania as more independents vote and become candidates like me. It’s just not predictive of how all people will vote in the fall. Hopefully, state lawmakers will see the light and open the primaries to all taxpayers who pay for these expensive elections.

Scott Bomboy has served as councilman for Perkasie Borough’s Ward 3 since August 2016.

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