Instead of Banning Closed Primaries, Just Make It Easier to Change Parties

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A woman casts vote at a polling station in Brooklyn, New York during the New York presidential primary April 19, 2016.
How to open the door to independents in primaries without devaluing party memebership.Photo: KENA BETANCUR/This content is subject to copyright.

One of the more difficult demands the Bernie Sanders campaign is regularly making is a future ban on closed Democratic primaries in which independent (and Republican) voters are excluded from participating. It’s unclear how such a ban would work (since state governments, not the national party, usually make these determinations), and the idea is also offensive to many Democrats who think party affiliation ought to account for something in party-nomination contests.

Fortunately, there is a reform available that makes participation in Democratic primaries by independents much easier without abandoning party affiliation requirements: eliminating re-registration deadlines so that independents can become Democrats at the primary or caucus site just before they vote. That’s already the case in some states (notably Iowa). This would deal with the handful of extreme cases (most famously New York, with its re-registration deadline that is 193 days before the primary) where deadlines have often passed by the time voters even form the intention to vote.

Easy re-registration, moreover, could help with problems faced by independents, even in open-primary states. In California, for example, independents will be allowed to vote in the June 7 Democratic primary. But as the Los Angeles Times revealed in April after a study of the situation, hundreds of thousands of Californians who consider themselves independents accidentally registered as members of the American Independent Party, the ancient right-wing vehicle invented by George Wallace for his 1968 presidential run. It’s managed to maintain ballot status largely because of such mistakes. 

An update by the Times indicates that the AIP suffered a net loss of about 21,000 voters in the two weeks after its initial report — which got a lot of publicity in California — was published.  That leaves 473,000 registered AIP members, with an estimated two-thirds or so having no intention of belonging to any party, much less the wacky Wallace party. Sure, some more AIP members have re-registered since early May, but the deadline for doing so is Monday. That is frustrating for a Bernie Sanders campaign that is desperately relying on independents to play a big role in the kind of overwhelming upset win they need to come within shouting distance of Hillary Clinton in pledged delegates. Instead, Lord knows how many tens of thousands of self-identified Democratic-leaning independents will get their mail ballots or show up at the polls to discover their choices include not Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton but a group of anonymous right-wing schmoes. 

Hillary Clinton would be smart to propose same-day re-registration as a counter to the Sanders call for universal open primaries. It’s a way to keep the door open to independents — including those who make mistakes in their original registration — without diminishing the value of calling oneself a Democrat. Most of these indies will probably stick around, just as Bernie Sanders has pledged to do.