What does voter registration mean in PA for the 2024 elections?

What does voter registration mean in PA for the 2024 elections?

A voting location sign is seen at Bethlehem City Hall in Bethlehem, Northampton County, Pennsylvania on April 23, 2024.

For Spotlight PA

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HARRISBURG – For the first time in at least sixteen years, Pennsylvania’s Democratic and Republican parties are within half a million registered voters of each other.

Since 2008, Democrats’ registration lead over Republicans has steadily narrowed — from a 12% lead in April 2008 to about 4% in April 2024, according to a Spotlight PA analysis of State Department data.

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The number of people registered as independents or under a third party has also grown, from 11% of total registered voters in 2008 to 15% this year.

Political consultants who spoke with Spotlight PA said that while registration trends can signal the mood of an electorate, they can’t tell you everything about how a deeply divided state like Pennsylvania will vote.

Stephen Medvic, a government professor at Franklin & Marshall College, said 2010 was a high point for Democratic registration in recent Pennsylvania history and that there was “nowhere to go” from that point in terms of registration numbers.

The party’s relatively lower registration rate is “not good (for Democrats), but I’m not sure it spells doom,” Medvic said.

In addition, consultants say Pennsylvania has undergone political realignment over the past 15 years. Anne Wakabayashi, a Democratic political consultant at PR firm BerlinRosen, said registration is “more likely to overtake the behavior of the electorate.”

That behavior, she said, includes working-class voters in Western Pennsylvania who have historically been part of unions that have changed their registration to Republican in recent years, coupled with an influx of highly educated and wealthy transplants moving into the Philadelphia suburbs have established.

Sam Chen, a GOP political consultant based in the Lehigh Valley, pointed to the same dynamic, noting that it can be seen in the commonwealth’s changing registration geography. Democrats used to dominate counties in the industrial and rural parts of the state, especially in the Southwest and Northeast. Now those areas are redder, while Democrats have consolidated support in the suburbs, especially in the densely populated Southeast.

“The Republican Party has moved from traditional conservativism to a more populist version of it, which speaks to traditional democratic values ​​like made-in-America union labor,” Chen said. “On the Democratic side, I think you’re seeing that shift from traditional liberalism to a little bit more progressivism.”

Wakabayashi noted that registration does not always keep pace with rapidly changing political preferences.

In her experience, voters are slow to change registration, even when their political views change. Sometimes they vote across party lines, choosing to split their ticket and vote for candidates from both parties, or simply not agreeing to vote.

For example, despite a declining advantage in the party’s number of registered voters in Pennsylvania, Democrats won the top races for president in 2020, and the U.S. Senate and governor in 2022.

In the last year, however, Republicans Stacey Garrity and Tim DeFoor won statewide races for state treasurer and auditor general — flipping those positions.

Political consultants and academics also say the increase in independent and third-party voters is significant and could reflect a growing disdain for the major political parties and broader apathy resulting in low turnout, such as during the 2024 primaries .

This is especially notable because Pennsylvania is one of 10 states with a closed primary system, which excludes independent and third-party voters from choosing which major party candidates will run in the November general election.

Some experts noted that this system could lead to fewer voters who consider themselves politically independent registering as such. In addition, voters can change their party registration up to ten days before the election, which they can do just before a primary, so they can participate in electing a major party candidate before switching again.

“As our partisans become more and more partisan, there are many people who are moving toward third parties or toward the middle path,” Wakabayashi said. “Part of that is disillusionment with the parties on both sides.”

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