Pursuant to 1999 Senate Resolutions 8 and 98, the staff of the Joint State Government Commission, under the direction of the Advisory Committee on Primary Election Dates, examined two issues pertaining to the scheduling of primary elections in this Commonwealth: whether to hold the general and municipal primaries in non-presidential years in September, and whether to change the presidential primary in order to respond to front loading, as other states have done.
Our research has uncovered no demonstrable benefits to moving the primary to September. While it has been claimed that a September primary would increase voter turnout and decrease campaign costs incurred by candidates, the statistical evidence does not support that conclusion. An argument can be made that September primaries help challengers because they permit a more coherent campaign, but the proposed schedule may help incumbents by giving challengers little time to campaign as the party standard-bearer. Virtually all of the comment received by staff from officials in our sister states with experience running the September primary has enumerated a host of problems and difficulties, and most of these officials have urged us not to adopt it.
Serious disadvantages are foreseeable from adopting a calendar that allows only 70 days between the primary and the election. Among other consequences, adoption of the September primary will:
- substantially increase public election costs;
- leave insufficient time for the proper resolution of primary recounts and contests;
- disrupt the healing process within parties after a contested primary;
- require closure of registration for up to two months before the general election;
- complicate and delay the delivery of absentee ballots, potentially disenfranchising military and overseas voters;
- impose substantial additional burdens on election officials, thereby increasing the probability of errors in ballot preparation;
- leave insufficient time for the preparation of ballots where certification of nomination is delayed by pending court challenges; and
- reduce flexibility in scheduling referendums for constitutional and other ballot questions.
In response to these considerations, the task force and advisory committee recommend that Pennsylvania not adopt a September primary, but continue to hold a single spring primary for the major party nominations to all offices.
Because low and declining voter turnout in this Commonwealth remains an issue of deep concern, the task force further recommends a study to describe the causes of this phenomenon and to recommend measures to improve electoral participation.
The system for selecting nominees for President of the United States has evolved into a procedure that many believe is flawed and ripe for reform. While encouraging popular participation in some states and allowing the national parties to arrive at an early selection, the present nomination system often denies meaningful participation to voters in Pennsylvania and many other states. In addition, critics believe this system limits voter choice to well-financed and well-known candidates and, despite its protracted length, favors a remarkably hasty decision.
After considering the best response Pennsylvania can make to this national issue, the task force and advisory committee make the following two recommendations:
1) The General Assembly should consider the adoption of a resolution calling on the national parties to agree on a proposal to reform the presidential nominating process and urging the legislatures of other states to adopt similar resolutions.
2) In presidential years, as in other years, the primary for all offices should take place on a single date.
Furthermore, the task force believes that the present presidential primary election system fails to afford Pennsylvania's voters an amount of influence fairly proportional to its population. Rather than requiring each individual state to address this issue on its own, it would be preferable for the national parties to agree on a proposal that may enable every state to have a meaningful influence on at least some presidential nominations. Should no equitable national solution be forthcoming, the task force believes the General Assembly must consider repositioning its primary to allow its citizens a voice in the selection of the candidates for the nation's most powerful office.