On the Independence of Independents and the Primary Process

This weekend, reportedly, the North Carolina Republican Executive Committee will vote on a resolution to decide whether or not to close the party's primaries to independent voters. From the Greensboro News & Record, via The Hankster:
Elected Republican leaders, state party officials and activists are debating a proposal that would close the party’s primaries to all but registered members of the GOP. Currently, unaffiliated voters may choose whether to vote in the Republican or Democratic primaries or to vote in neither. The Republican executive committee is expected to consider a change to the party’s policy Saturday. Proponents of the change say open primaries have diluted the Republican brand, yielding candidates who do not always cleave to the party’s conservative ideals.

At Public Policy Polling, Tom Jensen disagrees:

When you actually look at the numbers [in NC] the premise that allowing unaffiliateds to vote in Republican primaries gives moderates undue power is false. The independents who participate in GOP primaries are almost as conservative as registered Republican voters.

Of the state's roughly 6 million voters, says WXII12, "2,764,855 voters are registered as Democrat, 1,931,452 are Republican and 1,379,385 are unaffiliated." The Hankster writes, from the link above:

The parties will continue to open or close their primaries depending on what they stand to gain or lose in the next election based on media polls. That's why we need national policy that supports a primary voting system that allows independents the right to participate.

Nancy broached this topic on our first Blog Talk Radio discussion, and there are good arguments to be made on both sides of the issue. On the one hand, it is reasonable for parties to stipulate that only registered members may vote in their primaries, as a matter of simple free association. On the other hand, given the duopoly system of government, one can easily imagine a situation where the majority of voters are disenfranchised by such a state of affairs. Of course, nothing is stopping independent voters from casting a ballot in the closed primary of their choice except their unwillingness to declare an affiliation with one of the two major parties, but then, however, they would no longer be independents. In the other case, that of the open (or semi-closed) primary system, wherein independents are allowed to vote in the Democratic or Republican primary and then go on to vote for the Democratic or Republican candidate in the general election, one is justified in asking in what way such voters could reasonably be termed "independent" since, at least in terms of their voting behavior, they are effectively indistinguishable from Republicans or Democrats. Thus, both closed and semi-closed primary systems function to undermine the independence of independents, and maintain a co-dependent relationship between voters and the duopoly parties. The clearest assertion of political independence remains the support of candidates who are independent of the Democratic and Republican Parties.

Returning to the situation in North Carolina, the Winston-Salem Journal writes that, "North Carolina voters must wonder whether the people who run their major political parties have any sense." Actually, there are probably quite a few who wonder for whom this is still a question. The editorial concludes:

If the [Republican] executive committee excludes independents from GOP primaries, the party may get candidates more purely conservative -- at least according to the definition of "conservative" the committee uses. But at the same time, the GOP will be telling independents that they aren't welcome. Moderates are invited to vote with the GOP only in general elections but certainly not welcome to run for office as a Republican or take part in party affairs. That may not make any sense, but there is good news for Republicans. Their competition isn't any smarter.

A group called "Progressive Democrats of North Carolina" is very upset by the scandals surrounding former Gov. Mike Easley and his fund-raising. (Most voters share this concern.) So, these Democrats want their party to push for good government reforms, especially involving large contributions to the state parties. This is a totally reasonable request, but the Democrats' executive director essentially told these voters to mind their own business. After telling The Insider newsletter that the party already supports some of the suggested reforms, he added, "While we welcome and respect the opinions and constructive input of this organization, it is important to note that they are not affiliated with the North Carolina Democratic Party." "Not affiliated?" Of course they are. They are registered to vote as Democrats.
Update: Ballot Access News reports that "the North Carolina Republican Party decided to continue letting independent voters vote in its primaries."


Samuel Wilson said...

This issue isn't an easy call. Since the major-party primaries are the de facto first round of the general election, it would seem that all voters should have the same right to decide who the two "final" candidates are. In the ideal form of such a system, nothing should prevent citizens from casting votes in both Bipolarchy primaries. But from the anti-Bipolarchy standpoint, this looks all too pragmatic and complacent. Part of me wants independents excluded from major-party primaries across the board, in the hope that such a rule would finally impress upon them the need to choose their own candidates. Of course, if that need wasn't clear to many people beforehand, I wonder what could ever clarify the matter for them.

In the case at hand, it looks as if the NC GOP has bought into the idea that McCain was imposed upon the party last year through the intervention of ideologically unsound independents, not to mention subversive stealth liberals. But it wouldn't surprise me if, in some places, independent participation might result in more conservative Republicans candidates, just as it might produce more liberal candidates on more rare occasions. Why not let each state hold a primary-style partisan referendum to decide the question?

d.eris said...

It seems like the non-partisan open primary (i.e. everyone can vote in all primaries) should be the starting point and then, if they so wish, individual parties should be able to decide to what extent they want to restrict participation, how they want to go about doing so, and at what level such decisions should be made. The fact that such things have been legislated and not left up to groups and individuals to decide on the basis of free association seems to me to be just one more facet of the institutionalization of the duopoly system of government.