If you are an independent voter, yes, you can vote in PA-12’s special election

Voters in Centre County registered with any party may vote in Tuesday’s special election to elect either Snyder County Republican and State Rep. Fred Keller or Ferguson Township Democrat Marc Friedenberg to represent the 12th Congressional District.

But the timing of this special election — coinciding with the May municipal primary — has some worried that voter turnout will be lower than usual.

The 12th District encompasses 15 counties in central and northcentral Pennsylvania, including half of Centre County — College, Ferguson, Gregg, Haines, part of Halfmoon, Harris, Miles, Penn and Potter townships and Centre Hall, Millheim and State College boroughs.

Sue Sargo, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Centre County, said the organization wants to spread the word that any voter, regardless of party affiliation, can vote in the 12th District special election.

“We believe that having the Special Election on Primary Day Election may create confusion and subsequent low independent voter turnout,” she wrote in an email. “Gov. Wolf may have been trying to save money by combining the two elections and did not anticipate this unintended consequence.”

Greg Minchak, communications manager for Friedenberg’s campaign, said that while canvassing and talking to 12th District constituents, he and others have found independent voters who either aren’t paying attention to this election because they don’t usually vote in primaries and those who believe they can’t vote this election because it’s a closed primary.

Pennsylvania 12th Congressional District Democratic candidate Marc Friedenberg, a Ferguson Township resident, visits the Centre Daily Times. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

On behalf of the Friedenberg campaign, Minchak said he would tell independent voters, “You’ve been living in a Republican-controlled area for a long time, and there’s an opportunity for you to see some real change in your community (by voting for Friedenberg).”

“Our campaign has been working hard to get Fred’s message out to every voter across the district and let Independents and Democrats know that they can vote for Fred,” said Jon Anzur, communications director for Keller’s campaign, in an email.

Pennsylvania 12th Congressional District Republican candidate Fred Keller, a Snyder County resident, visits the Centre Daily Times. Jessica McAllister jmcallister@centredaily.com

Registered Democrats and Republicans will receive two ballots on Tuesday — one for the special election and one party-specific ballot for the primary. Independent voters will receive only a special election ballot, said Sargo.

Pennsylvania is one of nine states to have closed primary elections, meaning only registered Democrats and Republicans may vote in their respective primaries. Over 1.2 million registered voters in Pennsylvania are not registered with the two major parties, and are therefore not able to vote in primary elections, according to Department of State data.

But there appears to be growing public support for open primaries, in the form of a new coalition called Open Primaries PA, which grew out of support for two pieces of legislation in the state General Assembly that would permit independent or unaffiliated voters to vote in primary elections.

“It’s remarkable how primary reform has emerged quickly across the Commonwealth as a key issue to good governance,” said Committee of Seventy CEO David Thornburgh, in a press release from Open Primaries PA. “Pennsylvanians seem to be realizing that our state is at a serious disadvantage if our government and politics remain stuck in the wrong century. We’re seeing this with redistricting reform and election modernization, both of which are being discussed in the Legislature. Opening the primaries to include independents is another critical reform to add to the docket.”

In the 2018 midterm election, voter turnout for Centre County was at 54% — the highest midterm turnout since 2006. In the 12th District election in Centre County, 34,662 people voted and Friedenberg garnered 63% of the vote, though overall he lost to incumbent Republican Tom Marino by 32 percentage points.

More information on candidates running in all races can be found at the LWV’s May Voters’ Guide at http://lwvcentrecounty.org/events/.

Polling places for Centre County can be found on the county website at centrecountypa.gov/index.aspx?NID=238.

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Sarah Paez covers Centre County communities, government and town and gown relations for the Centre Daily Times. She studied English and Spanish at Cornell University and grew up outside of Washington, D.C.