Don’t Register as an Independent

Today’s the last day for Pennsylvanians to register with a political party and vote in the primary on May 21st, which also makes this a good day to deliver my pitch on the foolishness of registering as an independent.

There is no benefit to registering as an independent. Let me repeat that. There is no benefit to registering as an independent.

In the life of a registered independent in Pennsylvania, there is one voting event: the November general election.

In the life of a registered party member there are three voting events: general elections, primary elections, and party committee elections.

If you are someone who is concerned about politics or public policy issues, it is the height of silliness to limit yourself to voting in just one of these three elections. This is especially true if you live in a city with lopsided party registration, since the primary is the de facto general election.

If you are the kind of person who genuinely doesn’t lean more toward one party than the other, then congratulations: you are an extremely rare case. Only about 7% of voters are true independents, who switch back and forth between the parties. All the rest of the registered independents behave just like partisans of one party or the other. And the people who don’t lean more toward one party than the other tend to be low-information voters who don’t pay attention, not high-minded centrists clipping David Brooks and Thomas Friedman columns, and judiciously comparing candidates’ policy platforms. The more informed people are about politics, the more partisan they tend to be.

What this says to me is that, contrary to the No Labels take on American politics, the two parties actually do a very good job of appealing to most voters, and there is not actually much political space at all for some alternative party. It means people are wasting their time on third parties, at least at the national level, under our first-past-the-post electoral system.

And if that’s true, it means that registering as an independent, and taking your voice out of the primary and party committee elections, is a totally incoherent theory of change.

If we are not on the precipice of some third party breaking through, then it makes zero sense to disassociate with the party whose political program is closest to your own views. If a third party is not coming to save you, then primary and committee elections are the only real way to change parties.

The only way to bring parties toward your views on the issues is to get candidates nominated on their ballot lines whose views are closest to your own. If you aren’t satisfied with the party you mostly vote for in general elections, then you need to get more involved with that party, not less involved. The Democrats don’t care about pleasing people who abstain from voting in their primaries. They’re not keeping a tally of those people. In the primaries, they’re trying to win the people who vote, the people who put in time volunteering for candidates, the people who donate money, etc. That’s who candidates are competing to please in primaries.

If you want the party to be more solicitous of your views on the issues, then you need to become a person like that. If you want to change the party, you need to vote in every primary election. You need to knock doors on election day and take opportunities to volunteer. You need to give money, even if it’s just a little bit of money. If you become that kind of voter, you will be amazed how much politicians suddenly care about what you think. There is no magic to this. Political change is a long hard slog, and there’s no shortcut. But the very first thing you need to do is pick a political party, stick with that party, and get involved any way you can in shaping the party’s direction.

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