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Loyalty Oaths and Party Primaries: Why It's Time to Abandon Party-Centric Elections

by Tiani X. Coleman, published

In New Hampshire’s 1st district race for U.S. Congress, the Republicans recently had a little brouhaha over a loyalty oath. Candidate Eddie Edwards was not allowed to participate in the GOP debate because he refused to sign a pledge to support the Republican nominee at all costs, no matter who it was.

Edwards says that for him, it’s a matter of honesty and integrity, and that when it comes to supporting his fellow party candidate Andy Sanborn, “What separates us is much more serious than policy disagreements.”

Whether Edwards is right or wrong about Sanborn’s character, shouldn’t he be able to withhold his support of someone whose character he perceives to be irreconcilably flawed or corrupt, without being banned from a debate?

These loyalty oath requirements are quite common in party politics, both nationally and locally across the country. Remember the RNC loyalty pledge that all of the 2016 GOP candidates for president had to sign? And though the Democrats didn’t have a formal loyalty oath, they had a similar “unspoken requirement,” and are still devising ways to control their candidates and keep them loyal.

Why? Do we really want to uphold the ill-conceived value of supporting the party over the person? Do we want to  uphold forced unity over conscience or principle?

This is just one of the issues that’s come to the forefront during primary election season. Though many states have already held their primary elections, the 2018 primaries in New Hampshire will be held in a few weeks. Every time the primaries roll around, I’m sharply reminded of the defects in the way we narrow our field of candidates.

As an independent voter in New Hampshire, I can choose a Republican primary ballot or a Democratic primary ballot, or for the first time, NH will also have a Libertarian primary ballot. Once I choose a ballot, I’ve joined that party, at least until I choose to unaffiliate again (luckily, they provide a way for me to do that on my way out the door).

Truth be told, as an independent, I rarely get excited about any candidates (they’re usually not independent-minded enough); I can’t help but feel a little apathetic about primary elections, as most candidates are just trying to out-partisan one another, and often in extreme, ideological, misguided ways.

On the other hand, as long as one of those candidates is going to end up representing me, I should take the time to get some say in who that will be.  Unfortunately, I don’t have the opportunity to fully do that. I’m required to pick one PARTY ballot and only vote for THOSE candidates, as though it’s a given that everyone votes for the party over the person.

How do I decide which ballot to take? In the race for governor, the Republican incumbent is going unchallenged in his party, with two Democrats vying to challenge him, and two Libertarians. In the race for Congress, the Democratic incumbent is going unchallenged in her party, with seven Republicans vying to challenge her, as well as two Libertarians.

In the State Senate, in my district, the incumbent Republican senator is going unchallenged in his party, and one of my friends is challenging him, along with another Democratic challenger. In the race for State House, I can choose up to three among many in either the Republican or Democratic primaries (New Hampshire has a big state House!).

Since I have friends in both the Republican and Democratic parties running for State House, and since I’ll likely split my three choices between parties in the general election, I’d like to get a say in each of those primaries. But I have to pick one party and one party only to vote for in the primary.

I’d probably just pick the Democratic ballot, since it has more races and people. I’d really like to get a say about this year, except that I simply can’t support the incumbent Democratic congresswoman for New Hampshire’s 2nd Congressional District.

Though I likely won’t be able to fully support the Republican or Libertarian challengers, either, I know I’ll be making a protest vote in that race come November, and I’d like to have a say on who I want that to be . (And who knows? Maybe – though not likely in the current environment – I’ll find someone I actually like.)

I guess there’s an unspoken rule against challenging incumbents in one’s own party. In New Hampshire’s 1st District, where there’s an open seat and the incumbent isn’t running for re-election, the Democrats have 11 candidates (including Levi Sanders, Bernie Sanders’ son, who lives in my district, the 2nd district, but is running in the 1st, apparently because he doesn’t want to challenge the incumbent who certainly needs to be challenged); the Republicans have 5 candidates; the Libertarians have 2; and there’s a relatively strong independent candidate who garnered nearly 10% of the vote in the 2016 election.

Overall, it’s a race to watch. (And we’ll see if the tides are turning against party loyalty, and if Mr. Edwards, who refused to take the loyalty oath, will be punished or rewarded in his primary for doing so.)

As I mentioned in my last column, independent voters across the country have been conducting a summer survey of independent voters (entitled 9 Questions for the 44%). Take the survey, if you haven’t yet. At completion of the survey, after Labor Day, we’ll be combing through the data, with many observations to extrapolate.

One thing I’ve noticed out in the field, which won’t be part of the data, is that many potential voters have already given up on the system and don’t vote, or even register to vote. They feel extremely disenfranchised and don’t have any interest in participating, short of a major overhaul to the system.

I guess it makes sense. If I, a political activist, feel somewhat apathetic about voting in primaries, imagine how apathetic the run-of-the-mill voter feels, when they don’t feel like the parties represent them.

With independents now at 44% of the electorate – and that’s not counting independents who only register with a party in order to fully participate, or those who don’t register at all -- isn’t it about time we abandon the systemic assumption that people vote for the party over the person?

Maybe it’s time for November 6th to be independents’ day.

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