Unaffiliated voters deserve to have their voices heard in primaries

Saturday, September 18, 2010

ON TUESDAY, 4,500 D.C. residents went to polling places, registered to vote and subsequently cast ballots in the city's hotly contested mayoral primary. At the same time, countless unaffiliated voters were turned away because of limitations in the city's new law allowing same-day voting and registration. If the D.C. Council is serious about increasing voter participation, it needs to give independent voters the same rights as unregistered voters.

The plight of unaffiliated voters was spotlighted just weeks before the primary when Mayor Adrian M. Fenty unsuccessfully sought to allow unaffiliated voters to participate in the primaries. Mr. Fenty had a personal interest, since the participation of independents, perceived as more supportive of his candidacy, might have prevented his defeat. The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics was right to deny his petition. Even though the law was ambiguous, it was clear from the legislative history that the council never intended to allow unaffiliated voters to participate in the primary.

However, we think the council was wrong to treat unaffiliated voters differently than those who have never registered. Why is it okay to register and vote on Election Day, but not okay to join a party and vote on Election Day? Isn't the whole point to get as many people as possible involved in critical elections?

Prohibitions against switching parties at the last minute are understandable, given the danger of partisan political mischief. But the only damage done by excluding independents is to the rights of these individuals. Other states that have same-day voting and registration either have open primaries that permit independents to participate or allow independents to register in a party on primary day. Now that the primary has been decided, the council should revisit this issue and correct its mistake.

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