Editorial: Primary election day should be Independents’ day as well

Another election, another snafu.

Hundreds of people went to the polls on March 15 only to be told they couldn’t vote because, unbeknownst to them, they were registered not as Republicans or Democrats but as “no party affiliation.”

About 2,000 of those voters filled out provisional ballots in Palm Beach County. For many of them, this led to a further indignity. Not only were their presidential primary votes discarded, so were their votes for municipal elections — which are nonpartisan and require no declaration of party affiliation.

This could have had big consequences in a Boynton Beach City Commission race, where incumbent Mike Fitzpatrick lost the chance for a runoff with winner Christina Romelus by just six votes. Or in Royal Palm Beach, where Councilor Richard Valuntus lost to Selena Smith by 161 votes. Or Palm Beach Shores, where the two mayoral candidates were separated by 13 votes.

Officials have been searching for the cause, with early indications pointing to a glitch in the registration process at the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

Turnout for municipal elections is perennially paltry enough without a complication like this. While we’re looking for a fix, how about asking a basic question: Why are we still putting so much emphasis on party affiliation?

More and more, Americans are refusing to declare allegiance to either party. Currently, 3.2 million Floridians are registered as members of neither party. That’s 26 percent of all the state’s registered voters. That number has grown by 1.7 million since 2000 — more than the increases in Democratic and Republican registration combined.

Over a quarter of Florida’s registered voters, in other words, couldn’t take part in the state’s presidential primary. Worse, many went to the trouble of discharging their civic duty and going to their polling places, only to find they were shut out.

Florida is one of just 11 states that have strictly “closed primaries” — that is, primaries in which only registered Republicans can vote in the Republican primary, and only registered Democrats in the Democratic primary.

Floridians should think seriously about joining the 11 states that allow open primaries, in which any voter can cast a ballot in either party’s primary. Or the 24 states that have a mix of rules, with some allowing voters to cross party lines to vote, others that allow unaffiliated voters to participate.

Open primaries — which you’ll find in states as diverse as Georgia, Michigan, Montana and Hawaii — offer a huge potential benefit to the health of the body politic. When Independents and even members of the opposite party vote in the primary, the winning candidates should be more reflective of the public mood. Upstart outsiders like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders could find it easier to gain traction. And at the same time, party-establishment candidates have an incentive to campaign toward the center rather than the extremes.

Who opposes open primaries? The two major parties, mainly. They worry about losing control over their own nominating process and fear that rival-party voters would invade their primaries to undermine their candidates. But open primaries should actually help the parties by producing nominees with broader appeal for the general election.

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