New York's Flawed Primary

Everyone should get one.

Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Imagine if states prohibited some citizens from voting based on their political beliefs. The reaction, justifiably, would be outrage. Yet about a dozen states already do exactly that, with hardly a word of protest.

Much of the current national debate over voting rights has centered on overly stringent voter identification laws. But the single largest impediment to voter participation is a system that barely arouses notice: closed primaries that exclude anyone who declines to join a political party.

In the most recent presidential primary election, New York's on Tuesday, about 1 in 4 voters were prohibited from casting ballots because they do not belong to either major political party. On April 26, the same fate will befall independent voters in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Democrats and Republicans alike have tended to defend or discount the wholesale disenfranchisement of independent voters in closed primaries, arguing that it’s their choice not to join a party. But membership in a party should not be a prerequisite for equal access to the polls when the election is paid for by the public and administered by the state.

More than a dozen states require voters to join a party in advance of primary day. New York sets the most egregious deadline: People must sign up by October of the previous year to vote in a primary. This year, New York will hold three separate primaries: one for president (April), one for Congress (June) and one for state offices (September) -- at a cost to taxpayers of about $25 million each.

Some states with closed primaries and caucuses (including Iowa and New Hampshire) permit independents to declare a party affiliation on the day of voting, then allow them to revert to their independent status after casting their ballots. This practice at least ensures that no voter is turned away because of his or her political beliefs.

Nationally, more than 40 percent of voters identify as independents. Compared to party regulars, they are more likely to back outsider candidates and those who buck the party line, which is precisely why many party leaders and ideological activists prefer to exclude them. This year, Senator Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are doing well among independents, who helped propel Barack Obama and John McCain to the general election in 2008.

Of course, requiring open primaries may lead some state parties to switch to caucuses, which have lower turnout and tend to favor partisans over independents. But parties may find that abandoning primaries backfires on them, by making it even harder to reverse their membership declines and fueling support for outsider candidates.

If parties wish to take on the expense of running their nominating process, as they do with caucuses, they are free to set their own rules concerning participation. But when they act in official partnership with state and local governments, and taxpayers spend millions of dollars to administer the nominating contests, then all registered voters should have equal access to the ballot box.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.