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Big Story

Is the System Unfair to Independent Voters?

If you’re not registered either Democrat or Republican, you might be having a tough time voting.

Independent voters in numerous states are struggling with the system. Here are 3 different problems going on in 3 different states.

1. Closed primaries and voter registration changes in New York

new york primary ny primary

April 19th, 2016 is a busy day for poll workers in NY. (John Morton/Flickr)

Two of Donald Trump’s adult children, Eric Trump and Ivanka Trump, can’t vote for their dad today. Because they didn’t register in time.

The Trump kids aren’t the only ones who weren’t up to speed on what they needed to do to make sure they could vote in the NY primary on April 19th.

Primaries in NY are closed, meaning only registered Democrats can vote for a Democratic candidate and only registered Republicans can vote for a Republican candidate. (There are actually two different physical ballots, one for each party.) If you’re unaffiliated/independent, you can’t vote in the NY primary. The deadline to change parties was last October 9th—more than 6 months ago. (The deadline for new voters to register was more recent, in March.)

And on top of that, the deadline to switch is nowhere to be found on the New York State Board of Elections website.

So if you’re an independent who’s been following the campaigns and recently made up your mind—or if you just weren’t aware of the registration deadline—you’re left out in New York.

On top of that, millions of New Yorkers say they didn’t miss the deadline. They totally registered. But there were problems. Some say their paperwork didn’t get received and processed.

Others say their registration was mysteriously switched from Democrat to something else. Or purged entirely. Over 60,000 Democrats in Brooklyn alone disappeared from the voter rolls.

The confusion plus the weird registration problems plus the fact that only registered Dems and Repubs can vote in the primary equals 3 million New Yorkers being unregistered with either major party. Therefore unable to vote in the primary. Therefore feeling disenfranchised (denied of their right to vote).

So a group called Election Justice USA filed an emergency lawsuit.

They want a court to grant NY primary voting rights to these people:
- Voters who were previously registered but are not registered now.
- Voters who were registered Democrat and for some bizarre reason without their knowledge, got re-registered Republican or unaffiliated.

There’s even a Facebook group called “Voters whose registration was changed without their knowledge in NY.” It has over 600 members.

An unscientific observation: New Yorkers who are concerned about being disenfranchised by voter roll problems and by the closed primary system appear to be more likely to be Bernie Sanders supporters.

But some of these voters made up their minds in time to register in October but didn’t (looking at you, Ivanka and Eric).

BTW, not everyone agrees that open primaries are better and fairer. Many closed primary advocates say political parties are like clubs, and you should have to be a member of the club to vote for its leader.

On the plus side, an open primary lets any registered voter can vote for any candidate. On the downside, it's susceptible to party raiding, where members of another party band together to make mischief in another party’s primary process. In 2008, for example, some conservatives launched Operation Chaos, led by radio host Rush Limbaugh, to mess with the Democratic primary.

There’s a lot of disagreement over whether closed or open primaries are fairer and better.

But no matter where you stand on closed primaries, it’s clear that millions of New Yorkers who fully intended to vote in the primary and believed they were correctly registered to do so are realizing they can’t. This is affecting 27% of the electorate in a state with a lot of delegates to award in both major party races. And that’s a major problem.

2. Confusing registration in California

american independent party AIP california

George Wallace, a segregationist, helped start the American Independent Party. (Wikimedia Commons)

About a half million people in California meant to register as independents, but accidentally registered with an ultraconservative party instead.

How could that happen? The party is named the American Independent Party.

AIP is against same-sex marriage and reproductive rights. But their name doesn’t sound right-wing—it sounds ... independent.

So hundreds of thousands of people who meant to register as independent, nonaffiliated voters joined this conservative party. Including some celebs, like Emma Stone, Kaley Cuoco, and Demi Moore. Whoops.

California’s primary is on June 7th. For Californians who mistakenly registered with AIP, here’s the bad news:

For Republicans, it’s a closed primary, so only registered Republicans can vote for a GOP candidate. For Democrats, if you’re unaffiliated (“no party preference,” in California), you can vote in the Democratic primary. But if you’re registered in the American Independent Party, that’s a party affiliation that’s neither Democrat nor Republican, so you can vote only for AIP candidates.

But the good news is that there’s still time to fix your registration. You have until May 23rd to either register in the first place or change your affiliation.

3. Voter suppression in Arizona

arizona maricopa county voter suppression

Some activists in Arizona are demanding a revote. (_jket/Flickr)

Arizona already had their primary on March 22nd. Donald Trump won the Republican race and Hillary Clinton won the Democratic race. But in Arizona’s Maricopa County—home to Phoenix, the state capital—the lines to vote were so long that many people say it amounted to voter suppression.

And now there’s a lawsuit over this issue. The state is being sued for not having enough polling places in Maricopa County after election funding was dramatically slashed to save money. The plaintiffs believe that voter turnout was down 12% because of overcrowding at the polls.

Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton described the long lines to US Attorney General Loretta Lynch:

“Throughout the county, but especially in Phoenix, thousands of citizens waited in line for three, four, and even five hours to vote.”

Some people were still waiting in line to vote after the polls closed—and even after the election had been called for Trump and Clinton.

Many people can’t wait in line for hours on end to vote, for a range of reasons. If the county doesn’t provide enough polling locations to serve their citizens, is that voter suppression? The Department of Justice is investigating.

This isn't purely an independent voter issue, but those voters reported extra problems in AZ.

Images used under Creative Commons licensing.

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Is the System Unfair to Independent Voters?

Holly Epstein Ojalvo

Holly’s mission is to inform, inspire, and empower engaged activists who will change the world. She was previously an editor at The New York Times and a high school teacher. She spent her brief 20’s slump at a mousepad factory. Holly earned a B.A. at Lafayette College and M.A.'s at U Delaware and NYU. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, daughter, and cat, Tomie Twotone. Follow: @heoj.

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