More Independent Voters Means We Need To Reform Primary Elections

An IVN article revealed the top five states with the highest number of registered independent voters. Surprisingly, a majority of these states still have primary elections that disenfranchise this growing segment of the population.

Massachusetts, Alaska, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Connecticut lead the nation with the highest percentages of independent or no party preference voters, hovering between 43 and 52 percent. However, despite the fact that in each of these states independents are more numerous than Democrats or Republicans, three of them make it difficult for independents to participate in the primary elections.

In only two of these states, Massachusetts and Alaska, unaffiliated voters can vote freely. In the other three, either independents are simply prohibited from participating or if they do participate in a party’s primary, they become affiliated with that party until they change their status again.

In the next five states with the most unaffiliated voters, New Hampshire, Maine, Iowa, Colorado and Arizona, only one (Arizona) allows non-affiliated voters to freely vote in the primaries. This means that among the top 10 states with the highest number of unaffiliated voters, 7 still have rules that disenfranchise these voters during the primary elections.

Historically, parties have opposed opening their primaries to non-members because of the threat of them choosing a representative that the members of the party do not want. Additionally, party leaders are afraid members of the other party will vote in their primary in order to select the weaker candidate and win in the general election.

While studies by political scientists have shown that the number of voters who act that way remains low, the parties have successfully argued in may occasion that their right of private association under the First Amendment allows them to keep their primaries private. Last week, the Democratic Party in Hawaii filed a lawsuit arguing that the state’s open primary system, in place since 1978, is unconstitutional.

While this argument is completely valid, it ignores one dilemma: parties are arguing that they are private organizations to keep the primaries closed, but fund these primaries with taxpayer money.

If using public funds for the primaries was justified as providing a public benefit in the past, this argument is less compelling today.

When up to 50 percent of registered voters are disenfranchised from participating in primary elections that they have funded with their tax dollars, it might be time to reform the system.

A number of solutions are available to solve this problem.

The parties can choose to open their primaries in order to allow unaffiliated voters to cast a vote under the same rules as party members. States can also adopt a nonpartisan primary system in which all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, are on one ballot and a fixed number of them move to the general election.

A third and more innovative alternative is conceivable: Prohibit the use of public tax dollars to fund partisan activities,  especially partisan primaries.

Under this system, the parties will retain the right to organize primaries as they choose, but will have to fund them with their own funds.