May 20 2015 11:34 AM

You shouldn't have to join a political party to participate in primaries

Divided State of America copy

We do not get our right to vote because we are white, black, gay, straight, male, female, conservative, liberal, a member of a private organization or any other criteria other than what makes us American: citizenship.

Often, when talking to my conservative friends about "democracy," they are quick to point out that the United States is a "constitutional republic," and to "stop saying that America is a democracy!" And so I stop and read the first three words of the preamble of the Constitution.

"We the People." 

See, the problem with our conservative friends isn't that they're ignorant. It's just that they know so much that isn't so well thought out.

How, for example, can we have a system of representation for "We the People" if our constitutional republic is not grounded in a democratic vote whereby all the people get to participate?

Affording the right to vote to any less than every citizen would create a constitutional republic for "We the Minority in Control of the Government at any Given Time."

So there, at its core, is the key to our constitutional republic: the right of the people to vote for those who are elected to represent each and every one of us.

In the early-1900s, under the Democratic Presidency of Woodrow Wilson, we finally pushed through the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to participate in the voting franchise. Only then did women finally become part of "We the People," with full rights to equal representation.

And while the Democratic Party had embraced the expansion of the voting franchise to women, African Americans were largely left out of our representative system despite having the constitutional right to vote for half a century.

Until the mid-1940s, for example, the Democratic Party in many southern states did not allow African Americans to participate in "their" primary elections. Primaries, they argued, were private affairs and, therefore, the 15th Amendment did not apply.

But in 1944, the Supreme Court told the Democratic Party of Texas that it could no longer prevent African Americans from voting in their all-important primary election (see Smith v. Alwright), because of the important impact the primary had on the public election process.

Despite the ruling, for the next two decades southern states implemented a series of other voting obstacles to keep blacks out of the voting franchise. From literacy tests to poll taxes, those who controlled the laws did everything they could to rationalize racism under the guise of good governance.

It wasn't until 1965, supported by a growing civil rights movement, that the Democratic President, ironically, had enough popular support to push through the ever-important Voting Rights Act. Only then did blacks finally become part of "We the People," with full rights to equal representation.

Today, when we think of the battle over the right to vote, we think of voter ID laws designed to disenfranchise the most vulnerable among us under the guise of good governance, again. Generally, this Voter ID battle is fought between Republicans who stand to benefit from low voter turnout and Democrats who stand to benefit from having more low-income voters at the polls. And whoever wins this battle will win a few more elections than they otherwise would.

But what happens when neither party benefits from more equal voting rights?

In the 1960s, for example, the majority party in any given state would use malapportionment to protect their incumbency. The strategy was easy: simply draw some districts bigger than others by population, and load all the opposition voters into those large districts to dilute their voting power.

Both parties used this tactic for a long time, until the courts intervened. It was a court's ruling that finally ended malapportionment and gave us the now seminal phrase: One Person, One Vote.

So how is this relevant today?

Because the more important voting rights issue is larger than voter identification.

Today, 90 percent of elections are decided' during the primary stage of the election. This is, in part, because the majority party in any given state simply draws the districts to concentrate opposition voters. Worse, both parties have designed the rules so that if you are one of the 40 percent of voters who don't identify with either party, your vote never matters during the primary election.

All you need to do is look at the red and blue maps on the news station to see how political parties have "claimed" districts across the country.

The Republicans do it in Arizona. 

The Democrats do it in New Jersey.

Contrary to popular belief, partisan primary elections are private elections. Sure, taxpayers pay for them, but their purpose is to elect representatives who are loyal to the party, not the general electorate. Don't believe me? Just read either party's bylaws. Or, the state's election code.

So is it any surprise that our elections have become less about ideas, and more about gamesmanship? Is it any surprise that representatives on both sides seem to pander to narrow interests?

One only needs to look at the Republican presidential primary to see the effect that a privatized election system has had on our public political discourse.

And the effect of the party pandering is far-reaching. Even in San Diego's "nonpartisan" local elections, it's not hard to tell which party any given official represents.

So this year, the Independent Voter Project asked a simple question of the court in New Jersey, where 47 percent of their voters are not allowed to vote in the all-important primary because they have chosen not to join either private political party:

Do you have to join a political party to vote at an integral stage of the public election process?

On appeal, the Third Circuit Court said: Yes you do.

So much for "We the People."

Chad Peace is managing editor of the San Diego-based news website Independent Voter Network.


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