IVN News

Discussions About Independent Voters Would Be Improved if Philosophical Principles Were Set Out

Paid Advertisement

Many authors and commenters on IVN clearly believe that it is wrong for any party, or any state law, to prevent independent voters from voting in a government-administered primary for public office. I am personally undecided about that issue. It would help me to think clearly about this issue if someone will write an article for IVN that explains the philosophical objections some voters have to being required to join a party before they can vote in its primary for public office.

I understand conscientious objection. My father’s ancestors were in a peace church, the Brethren in Christ church. The men always applied for conscientious objection status to avoid being sent into military conflict.  Brethren in Christ doctrine was pacifist. In the U.S., Brethren members were allowed to avoid military service.  But in Canada, the government did not recognize conscientious objection to serving in war, and members of the church were imprisoned for their stance.

Going back further in time, I have an ancestor who was burned at the stake in Switzerland because he would not disavow his Anabaptist believes and associations.  His widow and children were smuggled out of Switzerland and found safety in Holland, and later colonial Pennsylvania.

So I understand the element of the human spirit that will not yield to coercion of beliefs.

Nevertheless, I don’t understand why anyone would be conscientiously opposed to filling out a voter registration form, joining a party, as a motive to be allowed to vote in that party’s primary. After all, the person could switch right back to independent status after the primary was over. I am not saying I don’t agree with that point of view. I just want someone to explain it.

For hundreds of years, social scientists have observed that voluntary groups are the backbone of successful societies.
Richard Winger

If the person says he or she has a conscientious objection to joining a party, that might be a philosophy against ever joining any voluntary group. I don’t know and I want to hear from people who have that point of view. If anyone is opposed to ever joining any voluntary group at all, I would be surprised. For hundreds of years, social scientists have observed that voluntary groups are the backbone of successful societies. Societies without many strong voluntary groups are invariably less successful. This research and thinking goes all the way back to the 1830s, when Alexis deTocqueville wrote his famous observations about why the U.S. is a successful country.

Maybe I am misunderstanding, and the conscientious objectors to joining a political party aren’t opposed to joining all voluntary groups; they are only opposed to joining a political party. But, again, that is mysterious to me. Political parties seem essential to democratic government. The urge for free people to form political parties is overwhelmingly strong. Every nation in the world with a population of over 100,000 has political parties, unless the government is highly authoritarian or totalitarian and forbids them. People even form political parties when that is illegal, sometimes at risk of their very lives.

I studied Political Parties in college, and every bit of scholarly research that was taught agreed that democracy won’t work in large-scale government without parties.

Maybe the conscientious objectors I am thinking about aren’t opposed to political parties in general; maybe they just fiercely dislike the Republican and Democratic Parties. But if that is the case, there are other political parties in the U.S., and some of them are quite successful. The Progressive Party of Vermont has eight state legislators now. The Green Party has elected a state legislator once or twice in Arkansas, California, and Maine. The Libertarian Party has won legislative elections in Alaska, New Hampshire, and Vermont, and has a state legislator in Nevada now. The Constitution Party once elected a state legislator in Montana. True, these parties are extremely weak compared to the Democratic and Republican Parties, but that is mostly because election laws prop up the two major parties and squelch other parties. For 50 years I have been working to make our election laws fairer, to permit people to form new parties if they don’t like the two old ones.

If IVN will run an article answering my questions, and delving into these philosophical musings, I will eagerly read it and hope to learn from it.

You Might Be Interested In...

Top-Two Primaries, Third Parties, and the Rights of Individual Voters

Learn More

Photo Credit: Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com

Join the discussion Please be relevant and respectful.

The Independent Voter Network is dedicated to providing political analysis, unfiltered news, and rational commentary in an effort to elevate the level of our public discourse.

Learn More About IVN

Mike C
Mike C

I definitely agree that political parties, in themselves, aren't necessarily a bad idea, and that they should have some autonomy in how their organizations are run. I think some people are just a little wary that private organizations hold such large sway in determining how our government works. The philosophical argument is that voters should not have to go through a private organization as a prerequisite to vote. Imagine if, for instance, you had to subscribe to a magazine before you were allowed to vote. You can make the argument that you can just unsubscribe from the magazine once you get home, but you shouldn't have had to go through that in the first place.

Bob Richard
Bob Richard

@Mike C -- If the magazine subscription analogy is useful, then it's at least as useful to ask why citizens of Connecticut can't vote in elections for the  Governor of New York. After all, policy choices made in Albany have important effects in Bridgeport and New Haven as well as New York.

Voting is restricted to citizens of the jurisdiction for the same reason that New York Republicans should not get to vote on who the Democratic Party of New York nominates for Governor. A candidate of a political party is that party's candidate and not anyone else's. She can only be legitimately chosen by members of that party. The only way to argue otherwise is to argue that parties shouldn't have candidates, in other words to argue for non-partisan elections.

I don't agree with the arguments in favor of non-partisan elections but at least they are logically consistent. If candidates are going to be identified on the ballot as associated with parties, then the parties have to chose them.


I refuse to register with any party because I am morally opposed to elements of every party's platform, and even more strongly opposed to the ways both major parties push legislators to follow party leadership in extreme and partisan ways, rather than work together to serve the common good. It may be that our two party system served the public well at some point; at present, I find both parties more interested in maintaining power than in serving constituents or solving problems.

I consider closed primaries to be a form of taxation without representation. Parties should pay for their own primaries, independents should have greater ballot access, and redistricting should be done by impartial and independent citizen commissions. 

Bob Richard
Bob Richard

I don't know whether what follows constitutes a "philosophical" basis or not, but it might make the discussion a little more conceptual and a little less about hostility to the two major parties in U.S. politics today. Disclosure and caveat: I do not share the point of view I will try to describe.

Some people oppose thinking about political parties as anything other than voluntary associations that should be treated just like the Red Cross, PTA or Sierra Club. It's fine for people to get together to talk about candidates and issues and publish their collective recommendations for the public to hear and think about. It's not fine for the government to print those recommendations on an election ballot and especially not fine for access to the ballot to be based on whether a candidate has the support of one or another voluntary association.

Candidates should be granted access to the ballot purely as individuals, not as standard bearers for a political philosophy or set of material interests. And voters should be discouraged from using group (e.g. political party) membership as a criterion when deciding whom to vote for.

You can take this a step further. Elections would produce better results if everyone voted on the basis of individual character and competence and did the best they can to ignore ideology and positions on issues.

People who think this way don't exactly deny that people's views are shaped by the interests they have in common with others who have similar economic, ethnic and cultural experiences. But they do deny that anyone benefits when these interests are allowed to shape electoral institutions and processes. They want individuals to think and act alone in the voting booth.

In my opinion, Richard Winger's opening statement describes very clearly what is wrong with this point of view. In the real world, people participate in social life -- and especially in political life -- as members of groups. Politics and government would hardly be possible if it were otherwise.

In a society any larger than a few dozen citizens, individuals acting alone have almost no influence on public life. It is only when large numbers of them act collectively as a group that they can get things done. This is why parties -- groups of people taking collective political action -- are not just any old voluntary association but instead are necessary parts of the machinery of government, why it is entirely legitimate that parties play a role in the nomination of candidates, and why most candidates choose to run as representatives of a party and advocates for its platform.


Some reasons:

1. I agree that party official elections should be for party members only, so these elections should be on a separate ballot from Primary or Caucus Federal, State, or Local ballots.

2. I want to select my candidate choices from any party. So how can I get party's ballots that have my selected candidates? A single ballot with all candidates could solve this problem.

3. Any selection process that uses taxpayer money must allow all taxpayers to participate.


@MichaelDrucker Why does it follow logically that if the government pays for the election, all taxpayers must be allowed to participate?  There are some special district elections administered by governments, in which only land-owners are allowed to vote.  These are special purpose districts, frequently concerned with water or irrigation, in rural areas.  Sometimes government agencies administer elections in which workers vote on whether to give a labor union enough support to make it the bargaining agent.  Sometimes government administers elections for farmers to decide on a policy of spending money to hold back surplus crop, or to advertise for that crop.

Governments spend taxpayer money all the time for services that apply only to certain groups and individuals.

Bob Richard
Bob Richard

@MichaelDrucker -- Only the members/supporters of any given party have a direct interest in whom the party selects to be its candidates. But all citizens -- not just party members -- have an interest in whether the selection process is reasonably fair and transparent. That general interest justifies limited kinds of government regulation of parties dealing specifically with candidate selection. History proves that parties have difficulty running their own caucuses and private primaries with transparency and fairness. Given the public's interest in the process, it is reasonable for the government to run partisan primaries for all qualified parties.

If you need empirical evidence, just pay attention to the stories that emerge from major party presidential caucuses in the states that have caucuses.


@RichardWinger @MichaelDrucker Selection of candidates is far different from the situations you describe. Given our gerrymandered districts, in many cases the only election is the one that takes place at the primary level. If we had truly competitive districts and elections, the closed primary would be less offensive. 


My mother doesn't vote in our (Illinois) closed primary because she's a government employee and doesn't want any kind of record of political affiliation. Likely it wouldn't ever be an issue, but it's an understandable precaution.


@atomapple That's another good reason to get rid of primaries and have caucuses instead.

On the other hand, the US Supreme Court has ruled three times that states can't take any hostile action toward a state employee on the basis of the employee's partisan affiliation, unless the employee is in a policy-making position. 

Dissident Politics
Dissident Politics

Hi Richard,

Good topic. 

You ask: "I don’t understand why anyone would be conscientiously opposed to filling out a voter registration form, joining a party, as a motive to be allowed to vote in that party’s primary. After all, the person could switch right back to independent status after the primary was over. I am not saying I don’t agree with that point of view. I just want someone to explain it."

Two reasons to conscientiously oppose come to mind. 

First, doing what you suggest is playing by their rules, which are rigged for their own benefits (real or imagined). I just don't want to do that any more. I demand a different game with different rules that are rigged for the public interest, not special interests, which include both parties.

Second, people being what they are, simply aren't going to just "switch back". Heck, lots of people don't even bother to switch on at all and that's a position I can't say is completely devoid of reasoned logic (but not what I would advocate).

For me, it amounts to the depth and intensity of personal disgust and distrust.

And, on a different point, it is really good to hear someone refer to social scientists and take them seriously. That's one of the top reasons for my rejection of the whole system as a hopelessly subjective, irrational, self-serving and self-deluded enterprise. 

But, being a person of perspective and flawless reason,* as much as I dislike and oppose the status quo, the mess we use for politics is nonetheless a lot better than the messes that most other countries on Earth have to suffer with.

* Well, maybe mildly flawed reason. Moderately flawed?

Andew Gripp
Andew Gripp

@Dissident Politics
"First, doing what you suggest is playing by their rules, which are rigged for their own benefits (real or imagined). I just don't want to do that any more. I demand a different game with different rules that are rigged for the public interest, not special interests, which include both parties."

Two points.

1. The key thing to understand about parties is that, at least in theory, they exist because they have competing visions of what the public good is in the first place. Simplistically, Republicans, on the whole, honestly believe that less market interference and a strong national defense are best for the public. Democrats, on the whole, believe that some government regulation and a less aggressive foreign policy are best for the public. 

Do some some, even many, Republicans and Democrats, do and say things that suggest otherwise? That they have the interest of the party before their conception of the public interest, however they conceive of it? Yes. But it is the a priori case that there is pluralism regarding how to define and achieve the public interest. A democracy, a multi-party democracy, is the best way to accommodate that fact. I can't accept the accusation that parties are purely about self or group interest. They are, however imperfectly, embodiments of competing visions of the public good.

2. I agree about the "rigged parties" and system. I am sick of the current parties, too. Though generally on the left, I am appalled by how the Democratic Party has handled this election, and how it has abandoned the working and middle classes for the last 40-50 years. This is why I consider myself largely an independent -- not a moderate, but an independent. I am no longer willing to let the Democratic Party take my support for granted. Clearly, I am not alone, and nor are you.

But now that dissatisfaction is so great, the question is, where do we go from here? How should we define the relationship between voters and parties? What role do we want to have for parties? How can we increase public trust and participation?

I agree with Richard. Voters need more choices. We need more parties. We need to ease ballot access restrictions. Ideally, we should implement proportional representation. 

I agree we need to promote rationality and objectivity to our public discourse, but I largely view that as a separate topic. Perhaps though it i worth contemplating, what kind of partisan arrangement is most likely to foster the kind of dialogue you (we) want? Here, I think PR would be helpful and a great improvement over bipartism. 

Andew Gripp
Andew Gripp

Thanks for broaching the subject, Richard. 

On the whole, I agree with your concerns. I think there is a tendency among independents to conflate a dislike of our current two-party system with an antipathy toward political parties as such.

I agree that in a large polity, political parties perform a useful, if not necessary function, as mediating institutions. I also agree that we need more parties and choice for there to be genuine political competition and high voter confidence and participation.

It seems that the defiant independent argument has two objections:

1. independents should not have to join a party to participate in a primary

2. taxpayers should not subsidize partisan primaries

As for (1), there are several rejoinders

1a. Private parties have a right and a legitimate interest in preventing outsiders from sabotaging their internal matters. After all, the purpose of a primary is to decide which candidate best represents the party.

1b. Relatedly, the party might ask, why would independents, as self-identified independents, want to vote in a party primary? In other words, why would an independent, a non-partisan, even want the right to vote in a party primary?

1c. To demand that primaries be nonpartisan (allow independents) is to negate the purpose of a primary. Again, party primaries are about choosing the party's representative, not choosing an elected official as in the general election.

1d. Voters can register with the party temporarily (as you point out).

In response to (2):

2a. Independents have a legitimate point. If primaries are to be private activities, then why should independents pay for them?

2b. Parties, however, are right to point out that this arrangement has been imposed on them. When states mandated primaries (over the caucus and convention system), the state became the administrator of these primaries, thus shifting the financial burden onto the public.

The status quo is indeed unreasonable and riddled with contradictions. I touched on that at the end of this article: http://ivn.us/2015/07/30/story-behind-pay-party-primaries/

"In other words, independents are justified in criticizing having to subsidize elections for private organizations in which they cannot vote. Whether the proper solution is to maintain that [public] spending and open up primary elections (while violating the self-determination of private organizations), or whether the solution is to end that funding and respect the integrity of political parties to manage their internal affairs (while risking the recrudescence of partisan practices that instigated 19th and 20th century electoral reforms in the first place), it all depends on larger questions about one’s beliefs regarding the legal nature and purpose of parties and primaries themselves.

It is the outcome of these more philosophical debates about the roles of parties and primary elections that will shape the direction of electoral reform across the country."


Frankly, the individual parties, not government, should administer these primaries and caucuses.  And they, not taxpayers, should pay for them.