Independents hoping to vote in primaries face deadline


Want to cast your ballot in the April 28 presidential primary elections? Registered Republicans and Democrats are pretty much already set.

But bulletin to unaffiliated voters — you have only a couple days left to change your voter registration to one of the two major parties before the Feb. 14 deadline.

Confused? You’re not alone. New York is one of a dozen states that still have closed primary voting. That means you must be registered to vote with the party you wish to cast a ballot for on the presidential ballot.

New York relaxed its deadlines last year to give independent voters two months before the deadline. Before, unaffiliated voters had to register either as Republican or Democrat almost a year before they could vote for candidates of their selected party.

Under the closed primary system, the two main political parties choose how people vote for their candidates, according to CUNY political science professor Helen Chang. The reasoning behind closed primaries is to prevent one party’s voters from casting ballots for the weaker candidate of the opposing party.

“There are always loopholes,” she said. “Typically, how parties have stopped that was, until pretty recently, you had to change your party affiliation the fall before the primary the next year.”

But the outcry of unaffiliated voters in the 2016 primary — particularly ones who supported Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders— caused lawmakers to take a second look. But it doesn’t mean that a February deadline is any more or less of a deterrent for influencing an election than if that deadline was the previous fall.

“If you are part of a really motivated opposition — like a Republican trying to get into the Democratic Party primary — it’s supposed (to) discourage individuals like that,” Chang said. “But it doesn’t stop them by any means.”

That’s precisely the point made by Jeremy Gruber, vice president of Open Primaries Inc. His organization pushes for change in the 12 remaining closed primary states, arguing that the only thing New York’s current system prevents is a more democratic process.

“Under the state’s current closed primary rules, something like 3.5 million people this year in the state won’t have a voice in who they want to see on the ballot in the general election,” Gruber said.

Not only does that limit voters’ choices, it also depresses voter turnout, he said. Party affiliations are changing. More young people are independent and feel that neither party represents their political views. If parties were smart, they’d open primaries and take on platforms that appeal to voters outside their core base.

“That’s really what open primaries is all about — letting everybody vote and giving them a real choice,” Gruber said. “And unfortunately, closed primaries are the way parties keep choice minimal and keep voters exclusive.”

The state allows the main parties to choose how their candidates are selected. So far, New York’s parties have chosen to keep the status quo. If either party declared primaries would be open, that’s how it’d be done from then on, Chang and Gruber agree.

But unaffiliated voters might not have as many candidates to choose from if third parties had their own primaries, Chang said. There are many Democrats and Republicans in the field, while the Libertarian or Green parties may only have one.

“Any of the smaller parties can hold primaries, but they tend not to,” she said, “And in addition, primary elections are expensive and it’s typically the taxpayer who is footing the bill.”

But are there fewer third party candidates because this is a two-party system where anyone not running as a Democrat or Republican has little chance as far as fundraising and name recognition? It’s a bit of a chicken-or-egg situation.

Closed primaries are becoming less popular among younger voters. In open primary states, broad appeal is key.

“In a closed primary, a candidate can really focus on partisan voters, people who identify with the party and donate to the party,” Chang said. “In open primaries, candidates have to address a wider range of voters, like these independent people who might have chosen a smaller party to identify with.”

While primaries may change in the future, it’s not happening quickly, Gruber said. Bills introduced to open primaries have gone nowhere.

“And unfortunately, we’re about to encounter a 2020 primary in the state of New York, where 300,000 more voters will be shut out than in the 2016 presidential primary,” he said. “We’re about to see one of the largest acts of voter disenfranchisement in the state of New York happen once again, because the political establishment in the state of New York is afraid of letting all voters vote.”