Over the last few decades, there’s been a weird trend in American politics: Voters are more likely than ever to
describe themselves as independents, but they’re less likely to actually be independent in their voting.
That is, Americans are increasingly calling themselves “independent,” while consistently voting Republican or Democratic.
This is a bad trend. “I don’t believe in labels” is as disingenuous an idea in the voting booth, as it is when expressed on a date.
Party labels are useful. They tell us a lot about a politician’s ideology and what legislation he or she is likely to vote for, which is why voters increasingly rely on them when choosing candidates — even if they are too precious to accept those labels for themselves.
This year’s campaign is revealing a problem with the no-labels approach: Many “independent” voters strongly support a candidate, but they don’t get to vote in the primary of the party they are unofficially loyal to, because, in many states, those primaries are only open to official members who admit they are Republicans or Democrats.
Partly, this reflects a problem with the rules. In New York, new voters could register for the primary as late as last month and vote today, but existing voters who wanted to change their party had to do so all the way back in October. That’s absurdly early, and voters have good reason to complain about it. So do the Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders campaigns, which tend to draw more support from independents. Even two of Trump’s children missed the party change deadline.
But let’s be honest: This also partly reflects a problem with the voters, who increasingly want a say in the candidate selection processes of parties they refuse to join.
When political parties choose to close their primaries, they have a reasonable argument for why. Restricting voting to party members provides at least a minimal demonstration that the voters choosing the party’s candidates are invested in the party, and not simply interfering in its candidate selection process.
With a reasonable deadline, this is not a high bar to participation. All you have to do to become a party member is check a box on a form. If the GOP allows me to be a Republican, you can obviously be a member of whatever party you want.
So, independent voters of New York, by all means urge your state lawmakers to change the party change deadline so voter access is easier. (While you’re at it, urge them to allow a reasonable period of early voting.)
But also consider: Are you loyal in practice to a political party?
Then maybe you should go ahead and join it, so this won’t be an issue next time.
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