Why Can't Independents Vote in Primary Elections?

by Betty Dishman

Primary elections and caucuses are held in the United States before general elections to narrow a field of candidates and to select a candidates for nomination at party conventions. In some states, independent voters who are unaffiliated with any political party may vote in a primary, while other states do not allow them to vote. Many independent voters say they should have the same rights as other voters, but party officials argue that unaffiliated voters will diminish their party's effectiveness in the primary and in the general election.

Primary Elections Background

The primary election system began in the late 19th and early 20th century as a reaction against strong party organizations and their control over nominations. Primaries introduced secret ballots that enabled free voting for party nominees and the rejection of the party convention system for candidate selection. The ACE Encyclopedia Electoral Knowledge Network says the growth of primaries in United States politics is considered to be rooted in the concern that party conventions or caucuses were controlled by the political machines rather than the people. The first statewide primary was held in Minnesota in 1899. The first presidential primary election was held in Florida in 1901.

Primaries and Caucuses

According to IndependentVoting.org, primaries or caucuses are held in all states. Primaries are run by state and local governments while caucuses are private events ran by political parties. As of 2008, 37 states had primaries while 13 states and the District of Columbia had caucuses.

Open and Closed Primaries

Primaries and caucuses in some states are considered closed, meaning that only registered voters of a particular political party can vote. In open primaries, which are held in 32 states, unaffiliated voters can choose a party primary to participate in. In some states, primaries are semiclosed, meaning an unaffiliated voter must register with a particular party on primary day to be eligible to vote. In Alaska and California, the Democratic primary is open while the Republican primary is closed. Open or closed status is determined by the state's party leaders.

Arguments for Open Primaries

Those who argue in favor of an open primary claim that if an independent voter votes with their party in the primary, they may decide to vote with them in the general election or to become affiliated with the party at some point. Some proponents of open primaries also believe that closed primaries tend to have low turnouts and are dominated by party loyalists. Unaffiliated voters like open primaries because they are able to vote for the candidates of their choice without aligning themselves with a particular political party.

Arguments Against Open Primaries

Opponents of open primaries argue that their party's influence will be diminished if unaffiliated voters are allowed to vote. Open primaries may also allow voters from a particular party to request the ballot of an opposing party and vote for the weakest candidate, in the hopes of nominating that weaker candidate to the race for office. An open primary also allows voters to easily abandon their party affiliation, some opponents believe.

Future for Independent Voters

As of 2009, independent voters make up 40 percent of the electorate and polls show that 41 percent of college students consider themselves independents. There are organizations conducting online petitions they intend to send to President Obama, asking that open primaries be allowed in every state. Such efforts require a great deal of perseverance as well as a large number of interested parties.

About the Author

Betty Dishman has been a professional writer since 1988, writing for the "Observer-News-Enterprise" in Newton, N.C., and the "Lenoir News-Topic" in Lenoir, N.C. She lives in western North Carolina near the Great Smoky Mountains. Dishman holds a Bachelor of Arts in communication from Queens University in Charlotte and a graduate certificate in technology and communication from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

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