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On the face of it, the voting Independent would not seem to have a role in presidential primaries. Primaries are held to determine the nominees of political parties; i.e., organizations with which the Independent, by definition, declines association.
While this may seem only logical, it raises a number of issues. Indeed, it was just such a situation that several of the Founding Fathers feared with the development of political parties; i.e., a person would have to join a party to have a voice in who was to be considered for high office. Ironically, the primary system itself emerged in the beginning of the twentieth century as a solution to the back room dealing of political bosses who were seen as bargaining and trading nominations for political and personal gain.
It wasn’t until the 1970s, however, that the primaries rose to their current prominence and impact. Until then, the primary served essentially as a state-wide poll of the party faithful. Delegates to the nominating conventions were not bound by the results. Today, convention delegates, in one way or another, are largely committed to a candidate by a state primary or caucus.
Currently, the Democrats hold primaries in 35 states and Republicans hold primaries in 32. Where Democrats do not hold primaries, caucuses determine convention delegates. The Republicans use caucuses in 14 states with combined primary/caucuses or a state convention used in the remainder. The political parties in fourteen states hold their primaries on different days, and in seven states a different venue is used; e.g., one party uses a primary and the other a caucus.
Who gets to vote in a party’s primary is also a state by state affair. Some primaries are open; i.e., a voter registered in a state can vote in the primary of his or choice. Other primaries are closed; i.e., if you are registered as a D, you can only vote in the D primary. A few states allow Independents to vote in primaries, but an overwhelming majority do not.
A point not generally appreciated, however, is that registering as Republican or Democrat is largely a matter of self-identification. In fact, only one in 25 of those registered as D or R is actually a dues paying member of a state political party organization. Indeed, many Independents register as of one party or another for the express purpose of voting in a primary. I did this once myself.
Registering is relatively easy and for most states you still have time to register as of one party or another and participate in the primary process. But, as above, each state has it own rules. Click on Vote 411 under Resources on IDn’s web page to link to your state and go from there.
I believe strongly that in future elections registered Independents should be allowed to vote in presidential primaries, especially given the growth among those self-identifying as Independent. For 2008, the role of the Independent includes following the primaries closely and identifying the candidate who most closely aligns with what you believe is needed to be a good president and supporting him or her with your time and resources. As important, encourage colleagues in that candidate’s party to vote for him or her in the primary.
Your views on Independents and the primaries are very much encouraged.