D.C. should let the independents vote in primaries

By Michel Martin
Saturday, September 11, 2010

I have lived in the District my entire adult life, and every four years it's the same: The yard signs sprout on my neighbors' lawns, the conversations intensify on my neighborhood e-mail list, at the playground and at the store, and I have to sit on the sidelines with my mouth shut. Why? I can't vote -- in the primary, that is -- not because I'm a convicted felon, noncitizen or because I don't care. I can't vote because I won't join a political party.

In the District, our nation's capital, that means I and others like me get no respect. Our voter registration cards don't even give us the dignity of calling us what we are, which is independent. They say what we are not: N-P, for no party. That means no candidates or canvassers knock at my door or call my house, unless they are looking for my husband. More to the point, they make no effort to court my vote.

This is wrong. Independents make up as much as 40 percent of the electorate nationally, and, yes, the District is not alone in excluding them from party primaries; according to Openprimaries.org, 33 states allow independents to vote in presidential primaries, and only 21 let them participate in congressional primaries. But Washington is a place full of independent-minded people who care deeply about politics and policy, and it seems particularly indefensible to disenfranchise voters like me in a city whose residents are effectively disenfranchised from a role in national affairs because we lack voting representation on the floor of Congress.

I don't register for a political party and have not for most of my adult life, mainly as a matter of professional ethics. As a journalist who has covered national politics for most of my career, it would be inappropriate to publicly align myself with one team or another. While some of my colleagues take this to what I consider a ridiculous extreme -- abstaining from voting altogether -- I don't go that far because too many people around the world have died for the right to vote, and I will never give up that right or take it lightly. But loyalty to country is not the same as loyalty to a political organization, so I observe what I consider to be appropriate restrictions on my political participation: In addition to registering as an independent, I don't give money to candidates, endorse them or display campaign materials on my car or my lawn.

I do pay close attention to the issues, however, because I live in this city and I care about it. I suspect many independents in this city are like me. They are journalists, judges, religious leaders, academics -- or just those who, like D.C. Council member David Catania, love their city and follow public affairs but cannot stomach some positions of one national party or another. And while the logic of closed primaries may seem to make sense -- party members argue things out among themselves and then put forward their candidates to the general electorate for a final vote -- we all know that in this city the general election is a formality. Registered Democrats are the overwhelming majority.

As a result, every four years I have to choose between my professional responsibilities and my responsibility to participate in the life of my city. At times like these, when the stakes seem very high, that feels like an unacceptable and unfair trade-off. Clearly, that is one reason that, as The Post reported, some 2,600 registered independents and several hundred members of the Statehood and Green parties switched their registrations to vote in Tuesday's primary. Reluctantly, I was one of them. I will be switching back the day the election is over.

Some people resist the idea of open primaries because they think they open the door to partisan mischief-making, but I really don't think that would happen in this city. It's much more likely that the change would elevate the discourse. The leading candidates would have to appeal to people beyond their closed circles of friends, business relationships, frat brothers and sorority sisters, and, frankly, I think they would have to move beyond partisan and racial clich├ęs. Because those who are ideologically driven are more likely members of a party, many of the new voters would be more motivated by local concerns. The candidates would be forced to spend more time talking about the things that matter to them.

At a time when the District wants the rest of the country to acknowledge its right to congressional representation, doesn't it makes sense for the city to give greater voice to thousands of residents who don't the love the political parties but do love their city? It is time for the District to let its independents vote.

The writer is host of the NPR news and talk program "Tell Me More."

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