Sen. Arlen Specter’s remarks about changing political parties contained one statement that tripped our fact-checking radar: "Last year, more than 200,000 Republicans in Pennsylvania changed their registration to become Democrats."
Two hundred thousand people in one state changing their political colors from red to blue? Could it be true? Unfortunately, there’s no way to be certain. That’s because, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State, "Pennsylvania’s voter registration form does not require the registrant to specify from which party they are changing." So there is no way Specter, or anyone for that matter, can know for sure. The best we can say is that his number is plausible.
We did find that 239,413 (calculations shown below*) Pennsylvanians switched parties to join the Democrats in 2008. For the sake of comparison, 46,471 switched parties to become Republicans (so Specter was citing a gross, not net, figure). These totals do not include newly registered voters, only previously registered ones who officially changed parties.
One way to guesstimate how many of the party-switchers came from the GOP is this: In November 2007, there were 3,245,271 registered Republicans in the state and another 984,349 registered to independent parties, such as the Libertarian Party, America First Party and Communist Party. If those who converted to become Democrats came from the GOP and other parties proportionally, it would mean that 183,695 Republicans made the switch. We don’t know, of course, if the changes were proportional.
Wherever they came from, a lot of people changed party affiliation in the Keystone State. What motivated them? Well, the Democratic contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama was the first competitive presidential primary to reach Pennsylvania in a generation; that could have juiced the number of voters switching parties so they could participate in it. (Pennsylvania has closed primaries, meaning you must be registered as a Democrat or a Republican to vote in that party’s primary.) And local reports at the time speculated that a large number of independents were joining both parties so they could play in the primaries (in the case of those converting to the GOP, perhaps simply to run up John McCain’s numbers). Operation Chaos may have had an impact, too. That was the plan promoted by conservative commentators and bloggers to have Republicans vote in Democratic primaries and extend the campaign.
In short, we don’t know whether "more than 200,000" Republicans became Democrats in Pennsylvania or why, and neither does Specter. We do know that now he’s one of them.
*For those who are curious, this is how we calculated the number of Pennsylvanians who switched to the Democratic Party:
Shortly before Pennsylvania’s April 22 presidential primary, the state announced that "since January, 164,026 registered voters changed their affiliation to Democratic." And if we add weekly statistics from April through the end of November 2008, there were another 75,387 party switchers joining the Democrats for a total of 239,413. The same documents can be used to calculate the number of registered voters who became Republicans: 46,471.
Correction: We originally said that 71,779 voters had switched parties to become Republicans. That correct number is 46,471.