Ease up on independents

New York state law treats registered independents looking to vote in a primary like an unwanted third wheel: Their presence will be tolerated, but only if they can avoid being ditched by the couple.

And that couple – the Democratic and Republican parties – can be tough to keep up with, as many unaffiliated voters learned in the months leading up to New York’s presidential primary Tuesday.

The state has closed primaries, meaning you have to be a registered party member to vote in its primary, and registering with a party cannot be done at the last minute – far from it.

The deadline to change party enrollment was back on Oct. 9 – 193 days before the presidential primary.

In other words, unaffiliated voters – if they were aware of the law, and many were not – were expected to know six months before the presidential primary which candidate they wanted, or at least the party they wanted to join.

Due to that deadline, thousands of people – including some residents of Fulton and Montgomery counties – were left without a voice in the recent contests.

That helps explain something that had us puzzled: the seemingly lackluster local turnout in the most talked-about presidential primary this state has seen in many years.

The primary turnout locally was lower than 40 percent of eligible party voters in Fulton County. The overall percentage was 52 percent in Montgomery County.

Given all of the drama and headlines that have accompanied the Democratic and Republican races for their respective presidential nominations, those numbers appear a little low.

But when considering state law makes it difficult for unaffiliated voters – reportedly more than 25 percent of the state’s registered voters – to join a party and cast a ballot, those numbers make a great deal of sense.

As with so much of what passes for government in New York state, the law appears to be driven less by political ideals and more by the brutal reality of party politics. Incumbents generally prefer to have a small pool of party loyalists voting; it’s far easier to get re-elected when you know who is voting and what you need to say – and do – to win. Allowing a bunch of new party members into the voting pool – who may have very different preferences than the longtime party members – is basically the opposite of what incumbents desire.

However, state lawmakers must make it easier for people to register with a party and vote. Primaries – and elections – that appear rigged to exclude those who tend to be independent-minded are another example of the corruption that must be rooted out of Albany.

As usual, we must not rely on the goodwill of lawmakers to do the right things. All residents of the state must push their lawmakers to change the current system.

An easy fix would be for state lawmakers to move the deadline for updating party registration closer to the actual vote. For example, allowing people to register with a party a month before the vote should allow for more people to vote, while avoiding any confusion that could be caused by changing affiliation on the day of the primary.

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