In the long run-up to the 2016 presidential election, I have frequently found myself thinking about how we vote in this country, in general and in party primaries. I had planned to write one long essay on the subject, but it quickly became clear that such a plan was too ambitious, at least if I wanted to post something anytime soon. Instead, I am beginning a series of more modest posts about voting. I begin with the subject of open primaries, a completely arbitrary starting point. More essays will follow. As always, comments are welcome.
Bernie Sanders has expressed frustration over how states like New York conduct presidential primaries. In particular, he has complained about the inability of independents to vote in the Democratic primary because he seems to be especially popular with such voters.
In fact, states like New York have it right, insofar as they are discriminating as to who can vote in a Democratic or Republican primary election. The purpose of presidential primaries is to help select the candidate who will best represent a given party in the general election in November.
It makes no sense to allow Democrats to vote for the Republican candidate or Republicans to vote for the Democratic candidate. Allowing such crossover voting invites mischief. A Democrat, for example, could choose to vote in the Republican primary not for the strongest candidate, but for the candidate thought easiest for a Democrat to beat. (I imagined a certain satisfaction I would have felt had I been able to vote in the Pennsylvania primary for Donald Trump, a sociopath supremely unqualified for holding high office.)
Allowing a member of one party to vote in another party’s primary distorts the results in both primaries, as one party obtains an extra vote, and the other party is deprived of a vote. This could have the effect of obscuring the popularity of particular candidates as well as the likely turnout of partisans in the general election.
Why shouldn’t a registered independent be allowed to vote in a Republican or Democratic primary, however? To answer that question, we need to think about what it means to register as an independent. Independents are treated differently in different states.
In New York, for example, a voter can register as a member of one of eight different parties, including the Green party and the Women’s Equality party. One can also specify a party not listed on the registration form. A voter can choose to check the box indicating that “I do not wish to enroll in a political party.” Moreover, New York does not allow a voter to change registration except far in advance of an election. It is clearly a state that doesn’t want voters gaming the system.
New York is unusual in listing so many parties on the voter registration form, but it is common for states to allow a party to be written in or for a voter to indicate allegiance to no party when registering. Most states allow registration changes closer to elections than does New York, the extreme case being implemented in states such as Colorado and Wyoming, which allow same-day registration.
No doubt, New Hampshire is a favorite state of Bernie Sanders. There, one can be unaffiliated and still vote in either the Democratic or Republican presidential primary. By voting in a primary, you are automatically registered in the party for which you cast a vote. Before you leave the polling place, however, you can re-register as an independent.
If you are registered as a minor party member, say the Libertarian party, you should not be allowed to vote in either the Democratic or Republican primary by the same logic advanced above—you should not be able to influence the decision-making of a party not your own.
A true independent (or uncommitted) voter, on the other hand, is one who has chosen not to be associated with any
party. Many people, I suspect, eschew registration in a party out of frustration with the major parties (or parties in general) or because they feel a need for selecting candidates solely on their individual merit.
If you are unwilling to be associated with a particular party, however, why should that party allow you to participate in making one of its most important decisions? Senator Sanders would, no doubt, argue that allowing independents to vote in a party primary is helpful in predicting how swing voters will vote in the general election. There are at least two problems with this argument.
First, there is no direct way of knowing how independent voters have voted. Vote tallies do not tell us. Only through exit polling can we distinguish between the behavior of loyalist voters and independents. Like all polling, exit polling is subject to error.
Perhaps more importantly, the independence of uncommitted voters makes it difficult to know how they will vote in November. An independent voter who is allowed to vote for Sanders may well decide to vote for Donal Trump in November if the Democratic nominee is Hillary Clinton. Or the voter, strongly attached to neither major party, may simply stay home.
Thus, arguments for allowing independents to vote in party primaries are weak. Registering as an uncommitted voter in most states means opting out of partisan primaries. That is how it should be.
One’s voter registration can be used to send a message. Registered independents are, in some sense, saying “a plague on both your houses.” As a young voter in Louisiana, I registered as a Republican. This meant opting out of choosing most office holders, since, in the time of the Democratic Solid South, election winners were really chosen in the Democratic primaries. My registration was really a vote for competitive elections in my home state. Alas, Louisiana politics are now as bad as ever, but it is the Republicans who are usually in control.