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Shhh, Or Independents Might Actually Get to Vote

This past Friday was the last day to register to vote in New York’s presidential primary. But if you’re already registered as an independent and wanted to vote, your “secret” deadline was three months ago.

  • Renée Paradis
January 16, 2008
Last Friday, January 11, was the last day to register to vote in New York’s presidential primary, scheduled for February 5. But if you’re registered as an independent and wanted to vote in a presidential primary, you would have had to change your party enrollment status three months ago, on October 26. This “secret” registration deadline will prevent quite a few people from voting in what is turning out to be that rare thing-a New York presidential primary with real consequences, regardless of your party affiliation or lack thereof.

Here’s how the deadline works: a change in your party enrollment doesn’t go into effect until after a general election. Change your party now and it goes into effect on November 5, after the Presidential election. If you wanted to change party enrollment and have your registration be effective for this election, well, that’s something you should have thought about last October.

The same rules apply in non-presidential primaries. So voters in September 9's primary will be governed by the same October 26 deadline. That’s almost a year-long voter registration deadline.

Some other states have similar laws-Connecticut’s “secret” deadline was November 5 for a February primary; Rhode Island’s in December for their March primary-but many states don’t require these long periods of “disaffiliation.” (Interestingly enough, while New Hampshire allows election day registration for new voters, and has an open primary in which independents are allowed to pick up either party’s ballot, voters already registered with one party must have disaffiliated by last October 12 to vote in another party’s primary.)

We should care about this because we know—intuitively and empirically—that the further away a registration deadline is from Election Day, the more likely it is people will miss the deadline. The last person I met who missed a voter registration deadline is a volunteer on a presidential campaign and a New York lawyer-someone in a great position to know about these kinds of tricky laws. But she missed the deadline last October, because even she wasn’t thinking about the presidential race then. I work on voter registration rules as my job and I probably would’ve missed the deadline if I hadn’t registered with a party when I last moved. It is for exactly this reason that federal law prohibits states from imposing voter registration deadlines that are more than 30 days from the date of a general election. Why? The obvious reason: Most people don’t get involved in an election until much closer to when it happens. (Political junkies reading the Brennan Center’s blog are an obvious exception.)

All of this begs the question that underlies party registration rules: how far in advance should you have to decide you’re a “member” of a party in order to vote in a primary? A lot of people register “independent” these days out of frustration with the system; should these people not be allowed to help choose the presidential candidates? It’s a tough and interesting question-who is a party member? How much does party membership matter in a presidential primary? Should nonaffiliated voters be shut out of deciding who the major party candidates will be-one of whom, if history is any judge, will inevitably be the winning candidate? And can there really be said to be one cohesive “party” determining the nominee when independent voters in so many states can participate, if the state has an open primary?

Even though the presidential primary race is in many ways just getting started, it’s too late for many voters in this key state, at least, to have a voice in who the nominees will be. Just another way that a small election administration rule can have a big role in shutting people out of the process.