An increasing number of American voters identify as independents (no, not the American Independent Party, but Gavin Newsom’s wife made that mistake). By 2018, there were more voters who identified with none of the parties than there were identifying as Republicans. This trend is unsurprising considering the growing dissatisfaction with both the Democratic and Republican parties. Selecting “No Party Preference” may be liberating for many, but it is important to note what that really means.
Voters without party preferences face challenges in voting for candidates they support in primaries. Up until 1996, California voters were unable to vote in a party’s primary without membership. However, proposition 198 transformed California into an “open” primary system, one where any voter, regardless of party, can vote in whichever primary they choose. This system was short-lived, though, and a 2000 Supreme Court decision in California Democratic Party v. Jones. ruled the system unconstitutional. Justice Scalia argued the proposition attacked the purpose of the political party, adding 198 was also “…both severe and unnecessary.”
As a result, California was forced to the drawing board and modified its system to remain within the bounds of the Court’s decision; ergo, the rules changed to allow voters who declined to state preference the ability to request one party’s primary ballot, so long as that party agreed. Unaffiliated California voters do not have access to all party’s primaries, though, as the Republican party does not allow them a say in their nomination process. Even further, just because a party allows unaffiliated voters the opportunity to vote in their primary does not mean they will get the ballot. It is a non-partisan voter’s responsibility to request a party’s ballot; otherwise, they will receive a non-partisan one.
Those who argue non-partisans should not vote in party primaries might argue the purpose of declining to state party is to distance oneself from intra-party drama. After all, the primaries are meant to be the avenue for party members to determine who best represents the group they hold membership to. On the other hand, that view might be narrow-sided. No party preferencers are the voters both parties need to attract votes from in general elections, and closing out their voices in the primaries might end up being detrimental to the party’s ultimate cause: winning office.
There are potential complications that arise with being unaffiliated, and as long as the share of those declining to state a party affiliation remains significant, they should be understood. With non-partisan voters able to vote in the Democratic party’s primary, it is unaffiliated but republican leaning, voters that feel the effect of failing to state a party preference. Despite sounding liberating, there are restraining elements to lacking party affiliation.